Trust powers improved Gamecocks defense

Better play from young linebacker corps has helped turnaround

jkendall@thestate.comNovember 5, 2013 

Kaiwan Lewis

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

South Carolina’s defensive veterans talked about it wistfully — like it was nothing but a fond memory from days long past.

“I was hearing from the older guys, saying, ‘At a point in time, South Carolina’s defense was the reason that South Carolina won games,’ ” sophomore linebacker Kaiwan Lewis said.

In fact, all that happened in the past three seasons, but, earlier this year, it might as well have been ancient history. The No. 13 Gamecocks defense was giving up piles of fourth-quarter points, and coach Steve Spurrier was wondering if his offense would have to score every possession to win games.

Thankfully for him, the veteran’s history lesson lit a fire under the youngsters on USC’s defense.

“I wanted that to stick with us,” Lewis said. “That made us want to turn up the defense and get a lot better.”

Slowly, they did, particularly Lewis and the linebackers, a group that included a sophomore, a redshirt freshman and two true freshmen trying to replace a quartet of four seniors.

“It was probably not realistic to expect us to rip it up (early on) with all of those freshmen and redshirt freshmen in there,” Spurrier said.

The linebackers’ improvement has had a ripple effect through the defense, junior cornerback Victor Hampton said.

“They have to do the most communicating, they have to move the (defensive) line. I don’t think people realize how much goes into being a linebacker,” Hampton said. “Those guys are coming along, and they are one of the biggest reasons our defense is turning around.”

Now that the defensive linemen and defensive backs trust the linebackers, they can concentrate on doing their jobs, said Hampton, who pointed out he gave up a big pass play against UCF because he wasn’t sure his underneath linebacker help was going to be there.

“I think the biggest thing that has changed is everybody is just believing and knowing their assignment,” he said. “We have a good gap defense so when you do everything you have to do and do what you are supposed to do and trust the person next to you, it is going to be hard to do anything on us.”

In the past four games, South Carolina has surrendered 17.5 points per game and forced nine turnovers. In the first five games, it gave up 25.8 points per game and forced seven turnovers.

“You could see early in the season that we were kind of out of character, guys trying to do things and make plays,” defensive line coach Deke Adams said. “We tell them all the time, ‘We don’t need any superhuman efforts.’ We just need you to make the plays that are going to come to you. I think they are embracing that and you can see some of the difference.”

The word “trust” has been used by virtually every defensive player this week.

“Once you trust the whole system, you can’t be stopped,” junior defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles said.

The Gamecocks — who have simplified their schemes, according to defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward — are sixth in the SEC in scoring defense (22.1 ppg. allowed) and fifth in total defense (354.1 ypg. allowed).

“They are playing fast now,” Ward said, “and I think that’s one of the reasons that we are playing better.”

It is not lost on Spurrier that his offense, which carried the team through early defensive struggles, is now being propped up by the defense.

“When our offense sputtered like (against Mississippi State), our defense was there for the five turnovers,” he said. “Football is a team sport. When they were struggling, we were making some drives to stay on the field against Vandy and Kentucky.”

It has been refreshing to carry the load for the offense recently, said freshman safety Chaz Elder, who has moved into a starting role during the defensive revival.

“Now we are battling it out,” Elder said. “Is it going to be a defensive game? An offensive game? Balanced?”

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