In a league known for physicality and athleticism, someone still has to field the SEC's worst defense. That distinction has often gone to Vanderbilt or Kentucky, but in the midst of Steve Spurrier's decline, that ignominy came to fall upon South Carolina.
This unit finished 71st in defensive S&P+ in 2014 and responded by shaking up its staff somewhat, which yielded a finish of 97th in 2015. So when it came time to replace Spurrier, the Gamecocks did what many programs have done after one side of the ball collapsed. They turned to a coach who specializes in that side of the ball.
There are numerous Will Muschamp doubters, who believe his time at Florida firmly established he's not SEC head coach material. But there's no doubting his bona fides for the task of turning around the Gamecocks' moribund defense. He's fielded top-20 defenses six times in the last decade, per S&P+, and his three LSU defenses in the pre-S&P+ era all ranked in the top 16 in points allowed per game.
Here's the mess Muschamp is facing in Columbia.
The Gamecocks weren't good at stopping anything in 2015. They were beaten by Florida QB Treon Harris, who is now reportedly moving to WR. They were shredded by Texas A&M's spread run, led by a true freshman QB. They were blown away by pro-style run games from LSU and Georgia.
The scheme was a 4-2-5, designed to be a chameleon against a wide variety of offenses. But their deployment up front was frankly strange. They liked using the strong safety, the spur (space-backer/nickel player), or a cornerback on the edge as a force defender, even when it meant asking more of the linebackers in coverage.
During this play against Florida, the Gamecocks played both their spur (S) and their strong safety ($) to the run strength of the formation (the side with more likely blockers) and left their inside linebackers to deal with the passing strength (the side with more likely receivers). From that, they rotated into cover 3.
This got their faster players (5'10, 199-pound spur T.J. Gurley and 6'0, 211-pound safety Jordan Diggs) into space on the wide side and the linebackers to the boundary. But it meant non-ideal matchups, with Gurley and Diggs left to cover a tight end (H) while the slot (Y) runs deep on an inside linebacker.
The tight end crosses over to the weak side of the defense and gets open deep behind linebacker Skai Moore:
By always deploying DBs on the edge to outnumber the run, South Carolina often willfully negated the advantage of playing full-time nickel personnel against the pass.
On this play, you can really see the other issue: poor team coverage in zone. I can post multiple examples of quarterbacks staring down receivers, especially tight ends, and hitting them in stride once they clear a part of the Gamecock zone.
Whether by pattern-matching (more on this below) or just trading off skill players more smoothly and communicating better, the Gamecocks need to get better as a team in zone. This image of middle linebacker T.J. Holloman asking where his help was during that Florida catch? The 2015 Gamecock defense in a nutshell.
You'll also notice that Harris had a nice amount of time in the pocket to make that throw.
South Carolina looked for aggressive solutions to the Aggie spread. Those unraveled when the defensive ends and linebackers couldn't balance between containing Murray on the edge or maintaining gap control inside against Tra Carson.
The South Carolina defense was both poorly conceived and horribly executed.
And here's how Muschamp will look to fix it.
The big selling point on Muschamp was that he'd recruit better talent to South Carolina and thus fix up the ailing defense, but recruiting isn't the biggest problem. The last five recruiting classes looked like this, per 247Sports:
|Class||National rank||SEC rank||Number of blue chip defenders|
Those aren't classes that blow away the competition, but they still should've consistently produced top-40 defenses. Even if their recruiting wasn't great, the pathway to South Carolina winning an SEC East title isn't going to be via out-recruiting Florida and Georgia, as that's not very likely.
Muschamp and his staff are great recruiters. They might bring in another Jadeveon Clowney eventually. But his solutions that can bring immediate improvement are as follows.
1. Redefining positions
It's not in Muschamp's MO to play defensive backs on the edge to control the run. He prefers to make use of that space to unleash weapons like sophomore buck end Boosie Whitlow, who should see his opportunities for pass-rushing havoc increase.
Muschamp will try to have a strong front without compromising the secondary. He'll bring a variety of fronts and try to set up his line for the most favorable matchups possible.
With the buck often on the edge, the spur position is no more. Muschamp is auditioning a cast of DBs under 6'0 tall and under 190 pounds to play his nickel position. In this defense, the nickel is going to play more man coverage out in space.
South Carolina is going to play much tighter coverage, you can be sure of that. Rather than mixing and matching soft cover 3 zone, cover 2 and Tampa 2, Muschamp is going to have cornerbacks in man coverage and pattern-match out of cover 4 and cover 3 schemes.
Pattern-matching is inherently more aggressive than having defenders run to a zone. Pattern-matching defenders are taught to aggressively "find work," rather than retreating and waiting for receivers to enter their zone. Defenders are covering receivers instead of grass. While pattern-reading is employed in the context of zone defense, it can in some ways be thought of as a man-to-man defense, except that each defender's assignment is determined after the receivers start running, rather than by where receivers line up before the snap.
Whereas the Gamecocks often lost track of defenders in the middle of the field, Muschamp will stick his nickel on a slot and ensure his linebackers and safeties know both who to cover and how to stick to routes. It's difficult in the modern game to play effective defense by dropping deep and breaking on the ball. Those days are over and done in Columbia.
Muschamp is going to be hoarse after spring practice, but he'll scream himself to death before he allows this defense to be as undisciplined as it was. That alone should bump South Carolina up the rankings and perhaps reveal more talent on their roster than one might have guessed from the product a year ago.
Now if he can figure out that offense ...