Entering the 2011 season, the play of the secondary was one of the biggest concerns facing the Gamecock football team, as an array of blown coverages in the breakthrough 2010 season (particularly this one) wore heavily on the hearts and minds of Gamecock fans.
Despite returning just about everyone from the previous year's squad, the situation had seemingly not improved after East Carolina and Georgia combined to hang 508 passing yards on then-defensive back Coach Lorenzo Ward's secondary. Even with a win over the rival Bulldogs, criticism of the secondary reached a fever pitch after a fourth quarter in which Aaron Murray and company absolutely had their way through the air.
Never again would the defensive backfield turn in a performance worth critizing, as they limited the balance of their 2011 opponents to fewer than 166 yards passing on all but one occasion (Arkansas) and Ellis Johnson's last defensive squad ended the season with allowing a stingy 4.9 yards per pass attempt, good for second in the country behind Alabama.
A year later, 5 of the big contributors to last year's success are gone and four are currently populating NFL rosters. Stephon Gilmore was taken 10th overall by the Buffalo Bills (and has earned plaudits from teammates for his effort and performance so far in summer camps). SPUR Antonio Allen was a late-round selection by the New York Jets. And Marty Markett and C.C. Whitlock are knocking around as undrafted free agents with the Falcons and Vikings, respectively.
All of that leaves us with five burning questions about the South Caorlina defensive backs.
1) How will the Gamecocks replace Stephon Gilmore?
With a true sophomore. That's the plan for now, at least, as Victor Hampton is the frontrunner to step into the boundary corner position vacated by Gilmore. The word on Hampton has long been that he's an extraordinary athlete with great size at corner who just needs to get his head squarely set on his shoulders. If you saw any of the 8 games he played in last year, you know the former to be true. As for the latter, all indications from summer workouts are that Hampton has matured a great deal and appears ready to handle the role of starting CB, The Rubber Chickens' damning investigative report to the contrary that is in no way satirical notwithstanding. Even though Gilmore never was never quite as popular among fans after his freshman season, Hampton still has the tough task of replacing the first in the string of four consecutive South Carolina Misters Football that has been the feather in the cap of the coaching staff's recruiting efforts ever since.
2) Can Akeem Auguste stay healthy?
Akeem Auguste enters fall practice as the favorite to replace the tandem of Marty Markett and C.C. Whitlock as the Gamecocks' starting field corner. Auguste has played in 36 games as a Gamecock but only one since the 2010 Chick-fil-a Bowl. Akeem is entering what feels like his 13th season as a South Carolina Gamecock after signing with the Gamecocks out of high school in 2007, getting placed at Fork Union Prep, then enrolling at South Carolina in 2008. After sitting out all but one game with an injured foot that never quite recovered from offseason surgery, the redshirt senior from Hollywood, Florida is looking to prove that he can not only stay healthy but remain productive enough to stave off a batch of talented underclassmen - but more on that later.
3) Who will replace Antonio Allen?
Antonio Allen's replacement at SPUR is already something of a proven commodity in DeVonte Holloman, who slides in from the strong safety position. Even last year the coaching staff felt like Holloman was a better fit at SPUR, with his combination of size and speed making him a natural fit for the second level of the defense. But depth issues at safety (and Jimmy Legree's ineffectiveness in the first two games, which Holloman sat out because of a DUI) forced him out of what the coaches felt was a more natural position for him. Holloman (6'2'', 241) is more bulky than Allen was last year and will be auditioning for a role as an NFL linebacker (unlike Allen, who was drafted as a safety). The more pressing question seems to be "Who will replace Holloman at strong safety?" The leading candidate is another true sophomore in Brison Williams, who many of you may know better as the guy who played with a cast on his arm for most of last season. Williams impressed in fall practice last year, but broke his hand and was initially thought to be out for the entirety of the year. Williams struggled in his lone start at Arkansas, but is another talented underclassmen who is expected to have a smooth transition into a starting role.
4) How will the secondary fare in Lorenzo Ward's first season as defensive coordinator?
No one is expecting wholesale changes to the Gamecocks' defensive approach. Having cut his teeth as an assistant at Virginia Tech, Ward - like Ellis Johnson before him - is fully committed to the 4-2-5 as a base defense. When asked what we can expect from a Ward-coached defense, Spurrier's stock answer is that he and Lorenzo see eye to eye about how defense should be played. Though he's been pressed about it several times, the most he's revealed to the media about what exactly that means is that they're working on "simplifying coverages" and being more aggressive. It's very possible that this is some well-packaged coachspeak. After all, how often do you hear a coach say they're going to make things more complicated and harder for the players to understand and play with more passivity? Never. Still, it will be interesting to see if there is actually something to this supposedly more aggressive approach and whether it tends to result in more negative plays for opposing offenses or big gains given up by the Gamecock secondary.
5) Which (if any) freshman will make an impact?
Jordan Diggs and Rico McWilliams are a pair of guys that have impressed during summer workouts. Diggs could have an opportunity to get in the mix at SPUR or safety early on, with the three game suspension of Sharrod Golightly to start the season. Even so, Coach Ward has indicated that, if an injury befell Holloman at SPUR, he would be more inclined to shift WLB Damario Jeffery back to spur than to slide in a true freshman. With the quality depth that the Gamecocks return in the secondary, you have to think that guys like Diggs and Kyle Flleetwood and Chaz Elder will be redshirted if possible. Another guy that has stood out during the summer is redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian, who also quite nearly made it onto the baseball team. Entering spring ball, he was third on the field corner depth chart behind Auguste and Jimmy Legree, but could move up and steal some snaps if Auguste continues to be bitten by the injury bug. In fact, I would venture to say that he is the most likely freshman to make a meaningful impact in 2012 - something along the lines of Vic Hampton's contribution last year.