Gamecocks D has the 'Whammy' touch

From the time he was at Alabama playing football in college, South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has been known as “Whammy.”

Finding somebody in the football world who doesn’t call him “Whammy” is about as difficult as scoring points has been this season against his defense.

The No. 6 Gamecocks enter their showdown Saturday with No. 5 Georgia ranked sixth nationally in scoring defense. They're allowing just 11.2 points per game and, in their three SEC games, have yielded just one second-half touchdown. That touchdown came with 17 seconds to play against Missouri and South Carolina leading 31-3 at the time.

It’s a defense that plays fast, plays with an edge and plays with a tenacity that reflects its defensive coordinator.

But, as Ward is quick to point out, it’s also a defense that’s about to face a Georgia offense that has yet to score fewer than 40 points per game in five matchups this season.

“They’re by far the best offense we’ve faced,” Ward said. “They’re as complete an offense as you’re going to see and have made a ton of big plays.”

The Bulldogs already have 11 touchdowns of 30 yards or more this season, which is one fewer than they had all of last season. They’ve also generated 43 plays that have gained 20 yards or more, which is six more than any other FBS team.

This is a major challenge for Ward and his South Carolina defense, but Ward has never been one to duck from such challenges.

As his nickname suggests, he prefers to tackle them head on, which is exactly the way his defense plays.

It’s the main reason South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier chose Ward to lead his defense after Ellis Johnson left last December to take the Southern Miss head coaching job.

Johnson had transformed the Gamecocks into one of the top defenses in college football. He also had been a mentor of sorts to Ward, who began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Johnson at Alabama.

Ward knew he had big shoes to fill, but never blinked.

In his first game as the Gamecocks’ defensive chief, they shut down Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl last season and held the Huskers scoreless after the first quarter.

Spurrier had initially named Ward as the interim defensive coordinator, but saw enough in him even before the bowl game to give him the permanent title. He has shown a knack for knowing when coaches and players are ready to take that next step.

"He and I really think similarly about things, maybe even a little bit more than Ellis and I did," Spurrier said. "So we've changed a little bit. We really try not to maybe have defenses where our guys can screw up ... and not put indecision in them. So we've not had mental errors, maybe not quite as many as we've had in the past.

"Now, Ellis was a heck of a defensive coach. Don't get me wrong. We were third in the conference, fourth or fifth in the nation last year. We were very good. We just had some mental errors back there at times."

When he was promoted, Ward said the Gamecocks would probably blitz a little more than they had in the past. So he obviously believes in pressure defense. South Carolina leads the SEC with 22 sacks, which is six more than second-place Texas A&M. But the Gamecocks have been equally nasty against the run. Teams are averaging just 2.2 yards per carry against them.

"We set out with some goals at the beginning of the season, and we want to make sure we accomplish those goals every weekend and do it in a fashion that people know that they're going to have to bring their 'A' game to have a chance to beat us," Ward said. "We want to establish that identity every time we step onto the field. I can't say we're there yet. I'd like to have a year where we're dominant every game."

One of Ward's strengths is the way he relates to his players. He's not afraid to bark at them, whether it's star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or the third-team safety, but he also goes out of his way to get to know each of them personally.

Ward's straightforward relationship with Clowney during the recruiting process and the way he didn't fawn all over him was a huge factor in Clowney choosing the Gamecocks. Players like coaches who are real, and Ward is as real as it gets.

"I guess I have an infectious personality," Ward said. "I want to know my players, but I think they'd also tell you that they know me. That's a big part of getting their respect and having them buy in. They know you're in it to help them, but that doesn't always mean you're going to tell them what they want to hear."

Ward says he's "blessed" to even be in this position. He has coached under Frank Beamer, Art Shell and now Spurrier. He also spent a season at Arkansas in 2008 coaching the Hogs' secondary after being brought there by Johnson. The only problem was that Johnson stayed about a month before bolting for South Carolina. A year later, Johnson and Ward reunited at South Carolina. Even though Ward had the title of defensive coordinator, it was Johnson who ran the defense.

Now it's Ward's show, and he's glad he was patient.

"I had some opportunities to go to other schools and run the defense, but not on the SEC or Division I level," Ward said. "Some people have a desire to be in charge and don't care where it is, and they take that opportunity. I prayed a lot about it and put my trust in God. I couldn't be in a better situation. This is a great place, and Coach Spurrier is great to work for.

"Coach Johnson built a great foundation here on defense. I'm just trying to put my stamp on it."

Spurrier thinks the best is yet to come.

"It's obvious the players really love the guy and play for him," Spurrier said. "He's got a bright future as a D-coordinator and maybe a head coach someday."

And, yes, he's always going to be "Whammy," a nickname that originated with his college roommate, who joked that Ward looked like the Whammy character that would pop up on the "Press Your Luck" game show. Then one day in practice, Ward delivered a big hit on somebody, prompting then-Alabama coach Bill Curry to say, "Lorenzo, you whammed that guy!"

There was no going back then.

"That's what everybody knows me as, and that's OK," Ward said. "That's who I am."