gamecocks 2008: Special Assignment

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You ever wonder if Ellis Johnson wasn't really thinking when he took the South Carolina job? That he didn't realize that he would have to fix a defense that yielded 209.3 ypg rushing? That he let his desire to return to his home state overrule common sense?

Whatever the reasons he might have thought of not to come, Johnson is now at South Carolina, making him the one responsible for patching up a defense that had an absolutely dreadful last three games of 2007.

There was the game where Darren McFadden and Felix Jones galloped like gazelles through the Gamecocks defense. There was the game where the unit got pulverized by TTIIMM TTEEBBOOWW. And, of course, everyone who watched the game against the Team from the Upstate will remember 3rd-and-18.

So what is Ellis Johnson's defensive philosophy. SEC SPEEEEEEEED!!!!!!!!

My philosophy about defense is simple -- get the most speed on the field you can get and make sure your team compliments that. Defense is all about tackling, fundamentals and making pursuit at the opportune angles. Speed, speed, speed.

As far as formations, Johnson went from a five linemen and two linebackers to a more conventional 4-3 set-up during the 2004 season at Mississippi State. That is expected to be his main scheme at South Carolina.

So, what are the numbers. Let's look first at just Johnson's raw numbers as an SEC defensive coordinator going back to 1999, the earliest numbers available on the NCAA Web site.

RUSHING DEFENSE

Team (Year) Rank Rushes Yds YPC YPG TD
Alabama (1999) 2 335 904 2.70 75.3 NA
Alabama (2000) 32 423 1379 3.26 125.4 8
Miss. St. (2004) 89 478 2094 4.38 190.4 17
Miss. St. (2005) 46 418 1545 3.70 140.5 13
Miss. St. (2006) 36 404 1385 3.43 115.4 16
Miss. St. (2007) 58t 496 2039 4.11 156.8 14

Thoughts: Above-average at best. There's one stellar year (1999 Alabama), a couple of decent years (2000 Alabama, 2006 Mississippi State) and only one truly bad year (2004 Mississippi State) that came in the first year of a rebuilding job. The point to remember, though, is this: Tyrone Nix's 2007 unit was 110th in run defense. Literally any year of Ellis Johnson's career would mark an improvement.

PASSING DEFENSE

Team (Year) Rank Comp/Att Yds YPG TD INT
Alabama (1999) 47 218/414 2664 114.9 20 16
Alabama (2000) 55 191/344 2328 211.6 18 12
Miss. St. (2004) 11 159/272 1919 174.5 15 12
Miss. St. (2005) 28 194/316 2145 195.00 13 12
Miss. St. (2006) 67 179/309 2471 205.9 18 12
Miss. St. (2007) 7 207/387 2274 174.9 20 18

Thoughts: A few good years, the best being 2004, 2005 and 2007 Mississippi State. As far as 2004 and 2007 go, it's worth remembering that those weren't great years in terms of rushing defense, so that could account for part of the good rankings there; teams didn't want to pass when they could run. But the 2005 unit was decent against the run as well, so there are reasons to believe that Johnson has had moderate success against the pass.

TOTAL/SCORING DEFENSE

Team (Year) Rank (T) Yds YPG Rank (S) Points PPG
Alabama (1999) 9 3568 297.3 21 230 19.2
Alabama (2000) 35 3707 337.0 42t 246 22.4
Miss. St. (2004) 51 4013 364.8 60 280 25.5
Miss. St. (2005) 29 3690 335.5 44 259 23.5
Miss. St. (2006) 41 3856 321.3 83t 309 25.8
Miss. St. (2007) 21 4313 331.8 35 301 23.2

Thoughts: Remeber the clock rule changes in 2007 if you're wondering how a team could allow more yards and yards per game and improve in the rankings. Mississippi State's foes ran 170 more plays against the Bulldogs in 2007 than they did a year earlier. Again, some strong years, some a bit weaker, only one bad year in scoring defense, in 2006 with Mississippi State.

Overall, it appears that Ellis Johnson might not be the best defensive mind of the 21st Century, but he's certainly a solid defensive coordinator. Now, let's compare Tyrone Nix and Ellis Johnson against common opponents over the past two years.

Nixvjohnson_medium

The numbers in parentheses next to some of the scoring numbers, in case you're wondering, are points scored when the defense was not on the field, from a turnover, safety, etc.

The rushing numbers for Johnson's defenses are almost always better than those posted by the units coached by Nix -- 2007 Tennessee and 2006 Kentucky being the exceptions. The passing numbers are usually in the same vicinity, though sometimes worse -- and sometimes understandably so, such as 2007 Arkansas and 2007 LSU, when teams were running the ball so well against the South Carolina defense that throwing would have been pointless.

And when looking at the scoring numbers, remember that 2007 LSU had caught almost as many passes thrown by Michael Henig as by their own quarteback.

Ellis Johnson will also potentially have some things Tyrone Nix did not. At this writing, Jasper Brinkley is healthy. If he can stay that way for the whole year, he can be expected to play a major role in improving the run numbers. (Though likely not as much as Nix supporters would have you believe.) Nathan Pepper also is back, and is, in the words of the South Carolina Web site, "penciled in as the probable starter at defensive tackle this fall if he regains his full health."

Pepperloved_medium 
He is also loved.

What to take away from all this, other than the fact that Nathan Pepper is obviously having far better luck in the romance department than C&F?

Things look positive for the defense -- though, after last year's performance, there's nowhere to go but up.

If Johnson can fix the problems against the run, the predictions about the defense deciding South Carolina's fate in 2008 will likely be true -- and will likely be a good sign in Steve Spurrier's fourth year.

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