Ward keeps USC defense among the best

His first year in charge sees no letdown for unit

jkendall@thestate.comDecember 20, 2012 

  • Outback Bowl WHO: USC (10-2) vs. Michigan (8-4) WHEN: 1 p.m., Jan. 1 WHERE: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. TV: ESPN RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5 LINE: South Carolina by 6

If Lorenzo Ward sits down for a full review of his rookie season as South Carolina’s defensive coordinator, it won’t happen until after the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl.

“I might do it after the season is over, but it won’t be just looking at me, it’ll be looking at everything we are doing and whether or not we can do it better,” he said Wednesday.

With one game left to play, Ward’s first season looks a lot like Ellis Johnson’s final season in charge of the Gamecocks defense. South Carolina finished 2011 the No. 3 defense in the nation in yards allowed with 267.7 per game. That ranking has slipped slightly this year, to No. 13 at 312.3 yards per game. However, the Gamecocks have surrendered fewer points per game this year than last (17.4 compared to 18.4).

“I think he is developing into one of the best defensive coordinators in college ball,” said coach Steve Spurrier, who promoted Ward to replace Johnson almost exactly a year ago as South Carolina was preparing for the Capital One Bowl. “He’s only done it one year. As we all know, you have to do it over and over again. Our guys need to really have a good defensive game against Michigan.”

South Carolina (10-2) takes on the No. 19 Wolverines (8-4) in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla. Michigan will provide an unfamiliar challenge for the Gamecocks but not necessarily a daunting one. The Wolverines finished the regular season No. 80 in the nation in total offense (385.4 yards per game).

“I’ve got good coaches, good players, so we’re going to continue to try to put them in good situations,” Ward said. “You understand when you have been around this league, there are high expectations every week.”

When he took over for Johnson, Ward promised a more attacking style of defense, and while the team’s sacks went up (from 2.38 per game to 3.33 per game), it didn’t happen exactly as Ward had anticipated. South Carolina had such success with its rabbit package, using four defensive ends across the line of scrimmage on passing situations, it didn’t have to blitz opponents as much as Ward planned.

“We ran a lot more zone pressures than we did a season ago on run downs, but as far as out-and-out blitzes, we probably called three or four the whole season,” he said.

Ward’s promotion was one of three changes to the defensive coaching staff last year. The Gamecocks also hired secondary coach Grady Brown to replace Jeep Hunter and hired Kirk Botkin to coach linebackers. The Gamecocks don’t expect any staff changes this year, and the continuity should help the defense continue this year’s momentum, Ward said.

“In my opinion, (Ward) has done a great job,” Brown said. “We just have to keep developing players and the sky should be the limit for us here.”

Ward’s biggest strength is getting his players to play with maximum effort, Brown said.

“You can know all the football in the world, but if you don’t know how to motivate kids to know how to play hard for you and lay it on the line, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “The really good defensive coordinators I have been around have always had the ability to make guys want to play for them and believe in what they are saying and believe in what they are teaching. These guys believe in him and, whatever he needs, they are going to try their best to do.”

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