COLUMBIA, S.C. -- One of the more underrated jobs in the SEC the past two seasons has been the one done by South Carolina assistant head coach for the defense Ellis Johnson and his staff.
The Gamecocks finished 15th nationally in total defense last season and 13th nationally in 2008. Alabama and Florida were the only other two SEC teams to finish in the top-15 each of the past two years.
Without question, one of the best moves South Carolina made this offseason was holding onto Johnson, who was offered a lucrative deal by Tennessee coach Derek Dooley to be the Vols’ defensive coordinator.
The Gamecocks acted quickly and extended Johnson’s contract to a four-year deal and increased his annual salary to $700,000.
“We got all that done in a day, and we needed to,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Coach Dooley was coming after him hard.”
Johnson, 58, is one of the straightest shooters in the college game. He’s got that old-school aura about him and doesn’t sugarcoat it for anybody, including his players.
So when he says he doesn’t really have a feel for his defense this spring, he means it.
For one, the Gamecocks have been a MASH unit. Defensive linemen Cliff Matthews and Travian Robertson have been sidelined while recovering from injuries, and defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye has been limited.
Linebackers Rodney Paulk and Reggie Bowens have also been sidelined along with cornerback Chris Culliver.
“It’s good in that we’ve gotten a chance to see a lot of young kids, and that’s what the spring is about,” Johnson said. “But it’s hard to say where we are as a defensive unit right now. That might not be something that comes together until the second week of preseason practice.”
The Gamecocks return seven of 11 starters from last season, but one of the more disappointing things this spring for Johnson is that one of those younger defensive linemen hasn’t jumped out there and been more of a presence.
“With Matthews not being out there, we haven’t gotten any one-on-one pressure on the quarterback,” said Johnson, adding that sophomore end Devin Taylor and redshirt freshman Chaz Sutton still had a ways to go in that department.
Matthews was a second-team All-SEC performer last season and tied the departed Eric Norwood for the team lead in sacks with seven. He's one of the top three or four defensive ends in the league.
“You’ve got to have two of those guys at end, and we haven’t found that other light-the-match guy this spring,” Johnson said.
Johnson said junior Shaq Wilson is the most likely candidate to replace Norwood at outside linebacker, particularly if Paulk returns at full strength at middle linebacker. Paulk has suffered season-ending knee injuries each of the past two seasons.
The Gamecocks should be outstanding in the secondary, led by sophomore cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who started every game as a true freshman last season. He’s a future pro.
His high school teammate, DeVonte Holloman, is having a super spring at safety. But Holloman is a bit too heavy, and Johnson would like to see him lighter in the fall.
“I just don’t think you can play back there at 229 pounds,” Johnson said.
Junior Akeem Auguste has moved from cornerback to safety, but is being pushed by sophomore D.J. Swearinger, who’s been one of the Gamecocks’ breakthrough players this spring. Junior cornerback C.C. Whitlock has also had his moments this spring, although Johnson still wants to see him be more consistent.
“We’ve still got to prove it, but I think we’ll be better on defense than we were last year,” Gilmore said. “There were a lot of us feeling our way along last year because we hadn’t played. Everybody’s played now, and there are a lot of guys on this defense ready to leave their mark.”