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South Carolina Football Spring Review: Defensive Backs - Part 1

<em>Akeem Auguste</em>
Akeem Auguste

Several weeks ago, Connor Tapp, Gamecock Man and I divided up the various units on the football team in order to do a spring game preview series. While CT and GM dutifully completed their assignments, yours truly was guilty of rampant procrastination - and now the spring game has come and gone. Accordingly - through the amazing, curative powers of the inter-webs - what was supposed to have been a preview is now magically transformed into a review. Voila!

In Part 1, we will take a look at last season, examine our key personnel losses, and study-up on the cornerbacks. In Part 2, which is still in production (cough, cough), we'll look at the Spur and Safety positions, and discuss some of the intangibles we can expect from Defensive Coordinator Lorenzo Ward and new defensive backs coach Grady Brown.

Last Season

In his celebrated interview with ESPN's Chris Low back on April 12, Steve Spurrier sounded an ambivalent note about the performance of USC''s secondary during the 2011 season:

"I hope we’ll be a little sounder than we have been. Obviously, Ellis (Johnson) did a heck of a job here. But at times, we’d have some coverage breakdowns. I don’t know if we were doing too much or this guy was making mistakes. We got a lot better during the course of the year after we simplified some things."

Perhaps a lot of fans share the HBC's ambivalence. While definitely showing improvement over the 2010 unit, the 2011 USC secondary still seemed to give up a lot of big plays - e.g., 248 yards and 4 TD passes given up to UGA"s Aaron Murray and the 299 yards and 2 TD passes surrendered to Arkansas' Tyler Wilson.

In fact, the defining play of the 2011 season - in terms of missing out on a return to the SECCG - was certainly the defensive break-down that occurred when DeVonte Holloman slipped in the endzone, and which allowed Auburn's Barrett Trotter to find Phillip Lutzenkirchen open for the go-ahead 9 yard TD pass with just 1:38 to go. If Holloman breaks up the pass, it would have been South Carolina facing LSU in the Georgia Dome - all other things being equal.

But is the "blah" attitude fair? Based on the statistics, the answer is a resounding "no." When you review the NCAA passing defense numbers from 2011, the Gamecocks boasted the second-best secondary in the nation behind only the National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide - allowing just a 49.70% completion rate over the course of the season (one of just three squads in FBS to be under 50 percent - led by Bama at 48.26%) and giving up a stingy 133 yards per game (the only unit in FBS other than Bama [116 ypg] to finish up with an average under 150 ypg). While we did surrender 18 passing TDs, that was the same number allowed by LSU's celebrated defensive backfield (#9), and very much in line with some other top passing D's like #8 Georgia (17 passing TD's allowed) and # 10 Florida (16 passing TD's allowed),

Moreover, the Gamecocks led the SEC with 15 total interceptions (ahead of UGA which was second with 12) and were second overall in passing efficiency defense (94.23) - well behind Alabama (83.99) but just ahead of LSU (95.58).

The raw data demonstrates that the South Carolina defensive backfield was one of the elite units of the SEC - and by extension of all of CFB. No wonder that the HBC so quickly - and correctly - promoted USC defensive back coach Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward to defensive coordinator after Ellis Johnson left for Southern Miss.

A lot more to follow after The Jump (thanks for the reminder Gwinnett!)

Key Personnel Losses

The biggest departures from the secondary are undoubtedly All America / All-SEC selections Stephon Gilmore (CB) and Antonio Allen (Spur) - both of whom were three-year starters. Gilmore - who left early after his junior season - is widely considered a lock as a first-round selection in the upcoming NFL Draft (especially for teams that favor a zone system), while the conventional wisdom on Allen - a graduating senior - is that he will be drafted in the middle rounds.

Both of these players will be sorely missed. Having rebounded from an underwhelming 2010 campaign, Gilmore led the team in 2011 with 4 picks and also racked up 46 tackles (35 solo), 7 passes broken up and 1 forced fumble. Allen boasted 3 INT's and 89 tackles (56 solo) in his final season with the Garnet and Black.

Also graduating with Allen were senior cornerbacks (and co-starters) CC Whitlock and Marty Markett - who were both major contributors, and will most likely have an outside shot to make a NFL pre-season roster as free-agent signees. Freshman defensive back Martay Mattox transferred.

What to Look for in 2012

Projecting the 2012 DB depth-chart coming out of spring practice is a bit of a moving target, since we run - and will continue to run under Whammy Ward - a 4-2-5 base defense, with all sorts of variations and wrinkles (including some dime sets) - depending on the offenses we see and the coverages we feel are most favorable.

Compounding the problem is that likely senior starters Akeem Auguste (CB) and DJ Swearinger (FS) were both sidelined for the spring with foot injuries. Auguste missed almost all of last season, of course, after injuring his foot in last year's summer camp, but is expected to be ready by August this year; Swearinger (a starter for all of 2011 despite playing through a stress fracture for the second half of the season) had off-season surgery for his stress fracture and is expected to be back. The good news is that their absence allowed some of the younger guys to get more reps; the bad news is that they both missed out being able to play under new DB Coach Grady Brown.

All that being said, let's move on to take a closer look at the players.

Cornerbacks- Starters and Top Back-ups

Here is the GABA skinny on the projected starters and top back-ups to play corner for us in 2012. You'll note that I am not following the traditional "two-deep" format but treating the CB's more as a mix, which is the way I believe that Whammy and Grady will use them.

Starter - Victor Hampton - # 27 (RS Soph, 5'10", 197, Darlington, SC) - Despite just a bit of a checkered past (including his suspension/dismissal for part of 2011), Hampton is undoubtedly the most physical cornerback on the squad and arguably the best athlete in the entire unit - which is saying quite a lot. He has also the earmarks of a future NFL first-rounder and plays with the sort of emotion that you cannot coach into a player (though at times you have to coach them to rein it in a bit). This is likely going to be Hampton's break-out season, and don't be surprised if he garners All-SEC honors by the end of the year. If he has any weaknesses, it might be that he could use improvement in run defense; against the pass, however, he has shut-down/smother ability. As far as his emotional control, we can take some comfort that - along with Bruce Ellington - Victor was awarded the "Everyday Attitude and Hustle Award" at the Spring Game, which speaks well of his maturation. Last year Victor played in 10 games and registered 14 tackles and 1 INT. Count on those numbers to sky-rocket in 2012.

Starter - Akeem Auguste - # 3 (RS Sr. 5'9", 188, Hollywood, FL) - Although he didn't scrimmage a down during this spring, you can go ahead and pencil Auguste in as the other starter at CB after having endured a medical redshirt year in 2011. Even limited by an injured foot in 2011's August camp, he showed his toughness by registering four tackles in the UGA game last season before being forced to sit out. More importantly, Akeem brings veteran leadership to the CB position - having seen action in 36 games (including 19 starts) - and in that sense he is a perfect counterpoint to the younger, brasher Hampton. As if to further complement Hampton, Auguste is probably better at run defense than his opposite stater at CB, He may miss out on All-SEC honors, but barring injury expect Auguste to be a rock-solid contributor throughout the season.

Backup - Ahmad Christian - # 1 (RS Fr. 5'10", 189, Jacksonville, FL) - Ahmad sat out 2011 as a redshirt, and was a fan-favorite to walk onto Ray Tanner's 2012 baseball team - with the blessing of his football coaches (only to be cut by Tanner before the opening of the season). Perhaps the football staff didn't expect much from Ahmad, who has undeniable athletic talent but may have lost some of their confidence when he went out for baseball. Nevertheless, Ahmad didn't let his disappointment at not making the Yardcocks hold him back; by all accounts he channeled all his focus into a tremendous football camp, in the process earning a lot of praise from Ward and Brown, as well as garnering the "most improved" award for a DB at the Spring Game. Despite his inexperience, don't be surprised when we go to a three-CB/dime set to see Christian on the field - a lot; he may even find himself in a starting spot if Hampton or Auguste struggle or go down with an injury.

Backup - Jared Shaw- # 28 (RS Sr., 5'10", 179, Ft. Mill, SC) - If walk-on Jared Shaw's name seems vaguely familiar, don't be surprised. A solid prep (and the 2008 Spartanburg Herald-Journal h.s. player of the year), Shaw spent a year at Newberry College before walking on at USC in 2009; after sitting out his transfer year, Shaw impressed the staff at the 2010 spring camp as one of the outstanding walk-ons, but only saw action against Southern Miss and Troy that season. He returned to August camp in 2011, but left the team before the start of that season. Now he has come back with a vengeance during the 2012 spring, and he undoubtedly was one of the biggest - and most welcome surprises - of this March and April, with a couple of great scrimmages and a hugely memorable INT in the Spring Game. So - can we count on Shaw in the fall to keep the momentum going, or is he just a Mr. Spring ? Whammy feels strongly that Shaw will be in the CB mix, and the general consensus is that he is the real deal with great ball skills - which is great news for our overall depth. Since this is Shaw's final year of eligibility, we can only hope he's going to be as ready to go up against the SEC's best as he was going up against our offense; if he turns out to be this year's Marty Markett, then good for us - we can use him (one funny thing - he wasn't named an outstanding walk-on for 2012).

Backup - Cadarious Sanders - # 10 (RS Soph., 6'0", 189, LaGrange, GA) - Some pundits have penciled in Cadarious as Hampton's "back-up" on the two-deep. With one varsity letter under his belt, he saw action in eight games in 2011 - against East Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, the Citadel, Clemson and Nebraska - so the coaching staff is not afraid to throw him into the mix in an important game. Cadarious has good speed and likes physical play; lack of experience looks to be his main impediment - he only has four career tackles so far. Nevertheless, anticipate seeing him on the field a lot more as he continues to develop; the only real concern about him in the short run is the fact he was limited throughout spring drills with a nagging hamstring injury which hopefully will resolve itself over the summer.

Backup - Jimmy Legree - # 15 (RS Junior, 6'0", 189, Beaufort, SC) - Having redshirted his freshman year, and then seeing limited action as a back-up CB in 2010, Jimmy entered 2011 as the starting free-safety/spur after a great spring and solid August camp. Unfortunately, Jimmy had a tendency to get burned badly, and had to be replaced by DaVonte Holloman; by the end of the 2011 season he was mostly contributing on special teams. The key for Jimmy in 2012 is going to be to find his old confidence as he switches back to CB, where he played exclusively during the spring. Reading between the lines, Jimmy did well enough to see p.t. this coming fall, but not well enough to challenge the starters; he likely will be a reserve and special-teamer again. While some have written Legree into the two-deep as the back-up to Akeem Auguste, my take is that he is simply in the mix with Christian, Shaw and Saunders - all of whom may (or may not) see more action than Legree.

Cornerbacks - Other Reserves and Incoming Freshmen

Although we have some decent talent at the position, the departures of Gilmore, Whitlock, Markett and Mattox have left us a bit thinner than we might like at the corners - though not as thin as some.

The only other CB reserve coming out of the spring is Sophomore walk-on Jesse Dukes of Blackville, SC who will add some practice depth, and had a pick-off (of QB Seth Strickland) during the first big spring scrimmage. Named one of the outstanding walk-ons, barring a spate of injuries, Jesse will probably be held back for special teams and/or mop-up duty.

In recruiting, the Gamecocks picked up three potential CB's in the class of 2012, in no particular older- (1) Chaz Elder of College Park, Georgia (6'2", 180 - who some say is more naturally-fitted to play safety); (2) Chris Moody of McDonough, Georgia (6'0", 197 - who is built even more like a safety than Elder, and runs a 4.64/40 compared to Elder's 4.60; also played QB); and (3) Rico McWilliams of Hampton, Georgia (6'0", 170, 4.38). Whammy was deeply involved in wooing all three of these young men to Carolina, and you have to think he'll let them try to earn their stripes when they report in August. Grady Brown has talked about wanting up to 9 battle-ready Corners, but unless one of these frosh can learn the system and be a ball-hawk on the field right away, then they're all likely to be redshirted. Only time will tell.

One idea that has been bandied-about by some in the fan base is to move Bruce Ellington from WR to corner. - similar to what March Richt and Todd Grantham have asked of talented UGA WR Malcolm Mitchell. Despite the sublime wisdom of the suggestion, it is a suggestion that seems to be going nowhere.