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An intro to film study: Diagnosing the South Carolina base pass defense

A quick look at how Will Muschamp and T-Rob’s defensive concepts helped put a cap on explosive passes

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

2016 saw the South Carolina Gamecocks grind through a number of growing pains, more so on offense than anywhere else.

Funny as it is, when you hire a defensive coordinator as your head coach the defense somehow improves a great deal. In 2013 South Carolina’s passing defense S&P+ was ranked 14th in the country. That seems like eons ago when the Gamecocks had a defense littered with NFL prospects, specifically in the pass rush and secondary.

But once those prospects departed, the pass defense took a pretty significant hit when they fell to 71st in 2014 and a ghastly 105th in 2015. Fans will be hard pressed to forget the 2014 opener where Kenny Hill broke the Texas A&M Aggies single-game passing record. Nor will the stain of Greyson Lambert having a nearly perfect passing day in 2015 wash away from the minds of fans.

Those were the two most egregious pass defense collapses during that two-year period. But there were plenty of other examples of the pass defense being a liability in that time and Muschamp was somehow able to take those same players and improve the unit by leaps and bounds.

South Carolina’s pass defense was ranked 46th in S&P+ in 2017 thanks for some of the concepts Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson have introduced. Too often Lorenzo Ward would flip his philosophies on what coverage he would run, but Mushamp and T-Rob have made it clear what South Carolina’s base coverage will be.

South Carolina Gamecocks Football

What you’ll see here is South Carolina’s base defense against the kind of regular “spread” offenses you’ll see in college football today. This a “cover three” base defense, where the outside corners and deep safety each have a “third” of the field they cover while the linebackers and slot corner cover the middle of the field.

In almost every instance, South Carolina’s outside corners who cover the “x” and “z” receiver (the furthermost receivers on either side of the field) are playing five to eight yards off the ball. There’s one deep safety who will stand 12-15 yards away from the line of scrimmage and he is South Carolina’s last line of defense against a deep ball.

Now some fans will say, “Why play so far off? Won’t the other team just throw underneath you?” Well that’s the trade off. Here’s an except from the Bill C South Carolina preview:

...the pass defense, meanwhile, remained a strength in a very bend-don’t-break way. SC ranked just 84th in passing success rate but sixth in passing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays) — while the Cocks allowed 111 passes of 10-plus yards (66th in FBS), they allowed only 10 of 30-plus (second).

Essentially Muschamp and T-Rob are opting for death via a thousand paper cuts as opposed to one slash to the jugular. This is how teams have to adapt when there is no apparent pass rush — a key element of defense which South Carolina has lacked since 2013. Last season the Gamecocks sack rate was 76th in the country, a below average mark at best.

That inability to rush the QB is on display on the play mentioned above. Trevor Knight has all day to throw this ball to Josh Reynolds and still comes up about a yard short.

This is a blown play on the part of the South Carolina defense, specifically free safety DJ Smith (24) who can be seen trailing about eight yards behind the ball. If Smith plays his assignment properly as the deep safety he would have been in front of Reynolds’ vertical route.

At the beginning of the play you’ll notice a slight hesitation on the part of Chris Lammons (3) which allows the speedy Reynolds to get a step ahead of him on the route. If Knight puts this ball one yard further it’s probably a touchdown because Smith blew his assignment. The only reason Lammons was as close to the ball as he was is because he was playing so far off the LOS to begin with.

Because Lammons had the cushion to start, Reynolds has to make up the ground on a vertical route. Had Lammons played up, Reynolds would have blown by with more space and made the catch despite the throw being behind him. A team with a good pass rush can afford to play their corners up because they know on a pass play where the QB has to take the time to let deeper routes develop, the rush has more time to wind up in the backfield.

SC doesn’t have that liberty yet, so they must play off-man to keep the deep passes to a minimum. Here’s a better example of the off-man, cover three base working better later in the game.

This time Smith plays his deep role correctly as he teams up with Jamarcus King to smother up Reynolds on this stop-and-go route while Knight rolls out. Yes, the pass goes out of bounds but Reynolds was never open to begin with because South Carolina runs the coverage to perfection.

That’s just a taste of what we’ll be dissecting once the season starts. GABA will have a film study for every game of the season focusing on the how and why plays worked or didn’t work. We may release one or two more of these pieces before the season starts, so stay tuned to Garnet and Black Attack for more content this August.