Josh Kendall

Technique over tactics: USC’s Jon Hoke set to build a winner on defense

South Carolina Co-Defensive Coordinator Jon Hoke
South Carolina Co-Defensive Coordinator Jon Hoke tdominick@thestate.com

From his first meeting with the media after being hired as South Carolina’s co-defensive coordinator, Jon Hoke has been puzzled by the term “4-2-5.” That’s the terminology South Carolina has used to describe its base defense since the arrival of Ellis Johnson as coordinator seven years ago.

“It’s the nickel, right?” Hoke asked.

In fact, yes. What the Gamecocks have called the 4-2-5 essentially is a nickel defense, employing a fifth defensive back rather than a third linebacker. The fuss over the difference has made Hoke shake his head more than once in the past six months.

It happened again Wednesday, when he had his first extended conversation with reporters since his hiring in February.

“I know a big deal was made about the 4-2-5, and I have always known it as nickel,” the 58-year-old Hoke said. “The fifth guy is really a DB.”

All the fuss over what to call what and the differences between college football and the NFL, where Hoke has coached for the past 13 years, have mystified the 32-year coaching veteran. The last time Hoke coached collegiate football was 2001, when he was Steve Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida.

College offenses have changed a lot in that time, but the fundamentals of defense have not, Hoke keeps saying. Eighty percent of the defensive playbook he employed with the Gators holds up in the current era of college football, Hoke told 107.5 The Game.

Spurrier believes so. He has based much of his confidence in this year’s defensive revival on Hoke, who was the defensive backs coach for the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears.

“We both went to the NFL. I lasted two years, and Jon Hoke lasted 13,” Spurrier said. “So he’s a lot smarter, better coach than I am.”

Hoke doesn’t feel any extra pressure because of Spurrier’s very public confidence in him, Hoke said.

“All we are going to do is go out there and try to build a championship defense,” he said. “It’s going to be a day-by-day process. We are going to be very detailed in what we do. It’s always going to be technique over tactics. It’ll be a step-by-step process. We are going to try to improve every day, no more than that.”

The Gamecocks finished last season as the worst of the Spurrier era. They were 12th in scoring defense (30.4), 13th in rushing defense (212.23 yards per game), last in total defense (432.7 yards per game) and last in sacks (14) in the SEC.

Hoke has mentioned none of that to his players since arriving.

“That’s the respect you give them,” he said, adding the players have been receptive of his message and system throughout spring and summer.

Hoke is the co-coordinator along with Lorenzo Ward, last year’s defensive boss, and Hoke will make the final decisions and call the defense during games, Spurrier said. Hoke’s base defense is the four down lineman, Tampa 2 system of NFL veteran coaches Dom Capers and Lovie Smith. The system, whatever it is called, will not be the most important thing, though.

The rest is semantics for Hoke, who isn’t concerned about “catching up” on the explosion of spread offenses in college football since the last time he was on a campus. NFL defensive coordinators have been studying college offenses for the past several years thanks to the entry of mobile quarterbacks such as Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton into the league, Hoke said.

Asked how much he has studied North Carolina coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense, he replied, “Enough.” The Gamecocks open the season against the Tar Heels on Sept. 3.

“It’s never going to be about what the offense does,” Hoke said. “It’s about how we play.”

Help on defense

A look the eight new defensive coordinators in the SEC:

JON HOKE

South Carolina

Joins: Lorenzo Ward as co-coordinator

WILL MUSCHAMP

Auburn

Replaces: Ellis Johnson, who was fired

GEOFF COLLINS

Florida

Replaces: D.J. Durkin, now at Michigan

KEVIN STEELE

LSU

Replaces: John Chavis, who went to A&M

MANNY DIAZ

Mississippi State

Replaces: Geoff Collins, who went to Florida

BARRY ODOM

Missouri

Replaces: Dave Steckel, who got head coach job

JOHN CHAVIS

Texas A&M

Replaces: Mark Snyder, who was fired

DEREK MASON

Vanderbilt

Replaces: David Kotulski, who was fired, so head coach assumed duties

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