South Carolina defense has moved on from 'frustrating' 2014 season

HOOVER, Ala. -- Steve Spurrier still remembers the Auburn game from last season.

The Head Ball Coach went for it on fourth down six different times, including four in his own territory. He converted five of them. He also called a successful onside kick late in the third quarter to give South Carolina an extra possession. The Gamecocks finished with 11 possessions to Auburn's eight. Yet despite all that, they still lost, 42-35.

That's in large part because Auburn could not be stopped. Gus Malzahn's group scored six touchdowns on their eight possessions.

"I remember I was going to onside kick the first one at the start of the second half," Spurrier told ESPN.com last month at SEC media days. "I said no, that sends a bad message to my defense. The dude [Ricardo Louis] goes 80 yards on first down for a touchdown. I said we're onsiding the rest of the game."

Spurrier can make light of it now, but it was arguably the low point for a South Carolina defense that struggled all season.

The Gamecocks allowed 34 or more points in seven games last season. They finished second from the bottom in the SEC in total defense, giving up 432.7 yards per game. They were dead last in sacks (14), and they ranked towards the bottom in nearly every other defensive category.

"It was difficult and frustrating," linebacker Skai Moore said. "There would be plenty of times we'd get to third down, third-and-long, and they would get that third down on us and stay on the field. It was just a rough year. Hopefully we can keep that behind us and be able to move on."

"Yeah it was frustrating," added wide receiver Pharoh Cooper. "But I know it's not easy out there stopping them every play. Teams are going to score. That's football."

Spurrier just hopes opposing teams score a little less this coming season. He vows that it will be different in 2015. He vows that his defense will be much-improved.

And there's reason to believe him. South Carolina returns eight starters on defense, including Moore, the team's leading tackler from a season ago with 93 tackles. Jon Hoke, a longtime NFL assistant coach, was also brought in as the new co-defensive coordinator.

But the biggest difference will be up front on the defensive line thanks to a trio of junior college transfers -- Marquavius Lewis, Dante Sawyer and Ulric Jones -- who all have the ability to make an immediate impact. Lewis, in particular, looked dominant in the spring game and is currently listed as a starter on the Gamecocks' preseason depth chart.

"I feel like our defensive line has upgraded immensely," Moore said. "We have a lot of good talent coming in. I got to experience what Quay [Marquavius Lewis] was like in spring. He's just a huge dude, fast, gets off the ball, powerful. So we're going to have more dynamics on the defensive line this year."

South Carolina added another impact transfer on the back end this offseason with the addition of safety Isaiah Johnson, a graduate transfer from Kansas. Johnson was second on the Jayhawks last year with 75 tackles, and he was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2013.

The new additions should instantly make this defense better, beginning Tuesday when the Gamecocks open fall camp.

And they might just add a couple years to Spurrier's coaching timeline. As much fun as it was to see the Head Ball Coach go for it on fourth down all those times against Auburn last season, he'd much rather punt and rely on his defense to get the ball back without giving up any points.