Josh Kendall

The position that could make or break USC defense in flux

South Carolina safety Jordan Diggs (42) would be the starting nickel back if the season started today, coach Will Muschamp said.
South Carolina safety Jordan Diggs (42) would be the starting nickel back if the season started today, coach Will Muschamp said.

There’s been plenty of justifiable hand-wringing about who will start at quarterback for South Carolina’s football team this year. There are big question marks at wide receiver as well. And the fate of running back rotation gets more interesting by the day.

But there’s one unheralded spot in the lineup that’s quietly taking up a lot of Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp’s pondering this preseason – the nickel back. Finding the right nickel back is an important piece for Muschamp’s defense given how much he likes to utilize a nickel alignment, and determining that player is a bit like putting together a puzzle.

Cornerback “Rashad Fenton would be a very good nickel for us, but he’s also our best cover guy outside,” Muschamp said. “It’s hard because you take Rashad off the edge and you lose on the edge.”

Getting that juggling act right in the secondary will be one of Muschamp’s biggest jobs in his secondary role as safeties/defensive backs coach. The solution at the moment would be to put senior Jordan Diggs, who played the now-defunct Spur position his first two years at South Carolina (which was essentially a nickel back position) and moved to safety last year. The solution could change by the time South Carolina plays its first game of the season on Sept. 1 against Vanderbilt.

Along with auditioning Fenton and Diggs at the nickel back, the Gamecocks are looking at junior college transfer Stephen Montac and redshirt freshman Antoine Wilder, Muschamp said.

“From those four guys, I feel comfortable that we can get some production from that position,” he said.

South Carolina will need that. The nickel back gets its name because that player is the fifth defensive back on the field, joining the traditional two cornerbacks and two safeties in the lineup. A linebacker comes off the field to make way for the nickel back, and the rise of spread offenses around the country means many teams will play a nickel alignment as their base defense almost as much or more the traditional 4-3 or 3-4 alignments.

The Gamecocks likely will use the nickel as their base defense this year against at least Tennessee, Texas A&M, Clemson, East Carolina and West Carolina. Whoever the Gamecocks use at nickel needs to have a good blend of skills.

“That’s such a productive position for us as far as a guy who’s going to be a good blitzer, has good run instincts, can cover, can be in some zone,” Muschamp said. “As much perimeter run game as we face now, that guy has got to have some girth and power to him.”

The 6-foot Diggs is down from his college-high of 217 pounds to 205 pounds this year, but feels like that’s plenty big enough to play the nickel.

“The guy has to be versatile,” Diggs said. “He has to cover as well as come up in run support and make good tackles, a guy that can pretty much do everything.”

Fenton, a sophomore, is 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds and more comfortable on the outside as a traditional cornerback but willing to play nickel if needed, he said.

“Whatever I have to do to get on the field is what I’m going to do,” Fenton said. “Nickel is a more physical spot than corner. Corner you are back more. Nickel you are a not a linebacker but you’re in the box sometimes. You have to have that run support and be kind of aggressive.”

Fenton feels like he’s capable of a little bit of everything.

“I feel like I can do it all,” he said. “I’m not going to set any barriers on myself. If that’s what I have to do to get on the field, that’s what I’m going to do, be aggressive.”