If you’ve read any work of mine regarding the South Carolina defense since 2014, you’ll know I beat one topic to death: pass rush.
Since the departure of Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles in 2013, the Gamecocks have lacked the kind of pass rush which made them a top-end defensive team during the Spurrier era. After being ranked as high as second in the country in sack percentage in 2012, the Gamecocks fell back to 38th in 2013 and then dropped all the way to 117th in 2014.
In Spurrier’s final season South Carolina ranked 85th in sack percentage and then back down to 92nd last season. Simply put, if you can’t at least hover around the 50th percentile in sack percentage you can’t expect to field a good defense. Passing defense begins with the ability to rush the passer — you can’t expect defensive backs to run in circles all day trying to cover receivers who are normally bigger then they.
Different teams go about different ways of generating pressure. If your personnel is good enough, a defense can afford to simply use the four or even three defensive linemen already on the field to rush the passer.
A more aggressive defensive coordinator will blitz his linebackers or even safeties and corners to apply extra pressure — though you risk leaving some receivers open by sending more than four rushers. It’s a trade off some coaches are willing to make in order to generate more negative plays.
South Carolina’s issue has mainly been personnel over the past three seasons. No matter what blitz Lorenzo Ward would dial up South Carolina could never find their way into the pocket. In 2016 Will Muschamp appears to have realized he didn’t have the pass rush capabilities he would like, so he schemed the defense around this deficiency.
However in 2017 it appears South Carolina has started to develop the pieces who can generate pressure without fancy stunts or extra blitzers. Specifically against Missouri, South Carolina was able to generate pressure with three rushers — something I was not expecting when I watched the tape.
South Carolina generated pressure on ten of Missouri’s 35 pass plays: that’s 28.6 percent of the total snaps. That’s a great clip for any defense and it’s one of the reasons Drew Lock looked so shaky Saturday evening.
But even crazier, on the eight plays South Carolina rushed three passers they generated pressure on five of them. That’s 62.5 percent for the mathematically challenged.
South Carolina only rushed three down linemen twice in the first half, resulting in an incompletion and a 12-yard gain. Let’s take a look at that first incompletion:
Lock waits for about three seconds before he feels DJ Wonnum coming off the right edge. Wonnum attacks right tackle Paul Adams and hand fights him until he’s free. Over these past two games Wonnum has proven he’s a tough match up for right tackles one-on-one — just like in this clip.
Give credit to the South Carolina secondary too. With eight men in coverage, it’s no surprise Lock couldn’t find anyone open. But if Lock had been allowed to sit back in the pocket for five or six seconds, someone would have found a soft spot in the zone. Because Wonnum was able to generate pressure, Lock has to rush his throw and the result is an incomplete pass.
Wonnum registered the only sack for South Carolina in this game. Late in the fourth quarter while working against Missouri’s senior left tackle Tyler Howell, Wonnum rushes outside and swims back inside to take down Lock from behind. That’s a nice pass rushing combo move by the sophomore.
Let’s fast forward to the third quarter where a different defensive end generates pressure on his own:
Notice the defensive line shifts at the last moment before the snap, matching up South Carolina true freshman defensive end Aaron Sterling (15) with redshirt freshman center Trystan Castillo. The end result is Sterling bullrushing Castillo six yards into the backfield before the Georgia native gets free and knocks Lock back as he lets the ball go.
That’s a beastly showing by Sterling, who was the 426th overall prospect coming out of high school last season. This wasn’t the only time Sterling showed his teeth rushing from a three-man set -- check out this play late in the fourth quarter.
Sterling blows right by Adams to force lock to step up in the pocket, where Keir Thomas has beaten a double-team and makes Lock ultimately bail the pocket and run out of bounds for no gain. That’s a freshman, Sterling, and a sophomore, Thomas, teaming up to disrupt a pass play.
The young defensive talent for South Carolina is there. If the coaching staff can continue to develop these young pass rushers, the South Carolina defense has the potential to reach their old 2012 form.