In Part 1 of this article, we looked back at the success of last season's DB's, examined our key personnel losses in the secondary, and went through the likely starters and reserves among the Cornerbacks.
Now we turn our attention to the Safeties/Spurs, and also look at what the coaching intangibles that newly-promoted defensive coordinator Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward and new defensive-backs assistant Grady Brown will bring to the table in 2012.
Spurs - Starter and Backups
The hyrbid Safety'Linebacker position known as the "Spur" is the beating heart of the 4-2-5 defense - and without question is one of the most physically and mentally demanding positions in all of football. The Spur has to have the football IQ of a "Mike" (MLB), the hitting-power of a "Will" (Weakside LB), and the speed of a traditional Nickel Back - plus he sometimes has to rush the QB. Versatility is the name of the game for a Spur, and he has to be smart enough to decipher the offensive play in order to position himself.
If the Spur makes the correct read, then the USC 4-2-5 is very hard to beat. If he makes the wrong read and is out of position, however, then it's burn-baby-burn time - we're either down a LB to defend the run, or down a DB to defend the pass (poor Spur play makes us particularly vulnerable to the pass, since the Spur must either be one-on-one for the slot receiver, or in zone on other short/intermediate routes) . The great Spurs can disguise the defensive set so that even the best QB's we face - like Aaron Murray, Tyler Wilson and Tyler Bray - will have to expend precious time and focus in considering all the variations we might throw at him, while also having to worry about the pass-rush. Fortunately for us, we have the makings of a great Spur ready to start in 2012.
Starter - DaVonte Holloman - #21 (Senior, 6’2", 241, Rock Hill SC/Charlotte, NC). Having made 12 starts at Strong Safety over the 2009 and 2010 seasons, DaVonte was supposed to play Spur in 2011 along with Antonio Allen, but after two games had to move back to SS in order to relieve the struggling Jimmy Legree. The Charlotte native [who attended his senior season at Rock Hill's South Pointe H.S. and was a teammate of Stephon Gilmore] made the most of the situation - registering 51 tackles, 4 pass break-ups and 1 INT last season (the pick coming against arch-rival Clemson, along with 5 tackles against the Tigers). By all accounts, DaVonte had a terrific spring back at Spur, and the staff is very confident in him to pick up where Antonio Allen left off. DaVonte has a great field sense and a knack for being in the right place at the right time, without any significant weaknesses. He is also a steady, veteran leader (with an out-of-character DUI arrest in June, 2011 as the only significant off-the-field blemish on his otherwise exemplary career). The moxy and toughness to play Spur is on display with DaVonte in full force; he dominated in the Clemson game came after he suffered a concussion three weeks earlier against Arkansas. DeVonte will have an outside short to garner All-SEC honors this week. There's no reason to think he won't excel in the transition to Spur.
Keep reading more after The Jump!
Reserve - Sharrod Golightly - #9 (RS Sophomore, 5’7", 179, Decatur, GA). Looking at his height and weight (giving up almost 7" and 60 pounds to Holloman), you could be forgiven for thinking that the lanky-looking Golightly is just not big enough to play Spur. But you'd be wrong; Sharrod can bring the wood like a banshee, and delivers hits out of proportion to his size. All his power notwithstanding, he is probably better in the safety-aspects of the hybrid Spur position than pure run-support, where he will suffer against the SEC's elite RB bruisers regardless of how much heart he brings to the field. A 4star recruit, he appeared mostly on special teams last season. If there is one issue dogging Sharrod, according to certain press reports, it's his academics - which will cause him to have to sit out the Vandy and ECU games; in any event, look for this promising young player to start to come into his own in 2012.
Past Holloman and Golightly, depth is going to be a bit of an issue, Marcquis Roberts (#48, RS Freshman, 6’1", 206, Powder Springs, GA) was supposed to battle Golightly as Holloman's back-up in 2012 after having missed all of 2011 following shoulder surgery; unfortunately, Roberts seems snake-bit on the injury front - he suffered a torn ACL this spring and may have to miss his second-straight season on a medical redshirt. Redshirt Senior walk-on Jared Shaw is listed as a Spur on the final 2012 spring roster, but is almost certainly going to play cornerback next season.
The good news is that consensus four-star recruit Jordan Diggs of Cape Coral, Florida was recruited as a Spur and may see immediate action in 2012. In the unlikely case that Holloman struggles to adjust to his new position, or is injured, it wouldn''t be a big stretch to see three-year Spur back-up Damario Jeffery moved back to the Spur from the Will/Weakside LB spot - where he excelled this past spring camp. That wouldn't be optimum, of course, but is an option to consider in a worst-case scenario.
Safeties - Starters and Backups
Free Safety Starter - D.J. Swearinger - #36 (Senior, 6’0", 210, Greenwood, SC). What can you say about D.J. except that he is the real deal, and a near-lock for All-SEC recognition - both pre-season and post-season. He has played in every USC game (40) since arriving in Columbia on '09, starting 21 of them - including every 2011 game. Last season he registered a team second-best 80 tackles (58) solo and had three INTs (most notably the pick against MSU that sealed the victory in Starkville - which earned him SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors). Like Holloman, Swearinger has proven his toughness - playing the second-half of the season on a fractured foot, which has sidelined him for the spring. He epitomizes the essence of the safety position, showing equal poise in run support and pass-coverage, and he is the returning leader in tackles and picks on the defense. Now we need to see Swearinger step up and accept the mantle of team-leader on the field. If he lives up to his potential, he'll be drafted into the NFL about this time in 2013.
Free Safety Reserve - Sheldon Royster - #4 (RS Freshman, 5’11", 185, Woodbridge, NJ). With Swearinger unable to participate in spring camp, the conventional wisdom was that Sheldon Royster would have a chance to really showcase his talent safter having worn a redshirt all of 2011. While he is acknowledged to be a great open-field tackler, the word was that Royster struggled a bit to master the defensive system this spring. Well, a 50 yard pick-six in the Spring Game will do wonders to build up his confidence and added experience will only help smooth any rough edges. The biggest concern with Royster is not his upside - which is tremendous - but whether he has beaten the medical condition (seizure-type episodes) that limited him last fall.
Strong Safety Starter - Brison Williams - #12 (Sophomore, 5’11", 201, Warner Robbins, GA). The staff has been very high on the former 5A Georgia state defensive player of the year, who spent a PG year at Fork Union. He had to miss four games at the beginning of 2011 after suffering a broken forearm during August camp, but ably backed up DaVonte Holloman on the boundary the rest of the way - notching ten tackles (7 solo) in eight games in 2011 and starting in the UF game after DaVonte suffered a concussion. The word on Williams is that he is a physical player who loves contact; he has all the makings of a legit SEC-caliber starter. The brief suspension for conduct "detrimental to the team" back in January seems to have had a salutary effect on Brison (for whatever it was), and is now water under the bridge.
Strong Safety Reserve - Kadetrix "J.J." Marcus - #25 (Sophomore, 6’1", 185, Stone Mountain, GA). J.J. saw limited action in 2011, primarily serving on special teams in six contests. A consensus three star player, he boasted a terrific offer sheet and was a solid addition to the Gamecocks. The potential is certainly there, and while some may say he doesn't have the pure athletic ability of Williams, this is his time to make a statement that he's ready to see significant p.t. and challenge for a bigger role.
In terms of the bench, Edward Muldrow (# 20, RS Sophomore, 6'3", 183, Snellville, GA ) along with walk-on Kenny Robinson - (# 26, RS Junior, 5’9", 176, Hilton Head Island, SC) round out the safeties coming out of the spring. We may get some immediate contributions from 2012 recruits Kyle Fleetwood and T.J. Gurley.
The beautiful thing about the 4-2-5 is that with base defenders, you can show a plethora of different looks to the opposing QB/OC - 4-3, 5-2, 4-2-1-4, 4-2-5, or 3-3-5 - never having to tip your hand, as it were, by bringing in subs.
Besides its versatility, however, a big part of what is needed to make the 4-2-5 defense a success is a willingness to blitz.
Back in 2009, we could count on Eric Norwood to blitz from the Will position - on top of a strong front four of Devin Taylor, Cliff Matthews, Ladi Ajiboye and Travian Robertson, Norwood, in fact, was so fundamentally football sound that we could move him to end, OLB, Rover, etc., in order for him to harass the QB. When Eric graduated, however, it seemed that we just could not muster the same pass rush and that Ellis Johnson seemed to abandon it - preferring to rush with the front four.
With the loss of MIKE LB Shaq Wilson in 2010 - and the retrograde play of our defensive backs that season - there was something to be said for playing cautiously on blitzes. But we seemed to cleave to the same over-cautious philosophy in 2011 when we could have blitzed even more. Certainly the four-man rush paid huge dividends against opponents with injury-ridden or poorly-conditioned OL (like Clemson and Nebraska, respectively). But notwithstanding the talent of Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor, Jadeveon Clowney and Travian Robertson, it was ineffective against Arkansas and nearly cost us our butts against UGA.,
All indications seem to be that Coach Ward recognizes that we need to be more aggressive in our blitz packages - particularly utilizing the freakish talents of Jadeveon Clowney to force teams to scheme and double-team him, which should open up lines of attack for his teammates. This may be an area where Ward is superior to Ellis; and no one can question that an active pass-rush is a defensive back's best friend.
In terms of the intangibles which Grady Brown brings to the table, his enthusiasm and energy are probably going to be his biggest contributions, but the coaching abilities are also evident from the fact USM was eighth in overall pass efficiency under his watch - plus broke an NCAA record for most INT's returned for TD in a season (8). I love the fact that Grady coaches-up his DB's to improve their pass-catching skills; perhaps we can break the 20 INT mark this coming season, as we face some high-flying aerial attacks.