The good news coming out of practice on the defensive side of the ball is that starting defensive tackle Melvin Ingram will play and have more use of his injured hand than expected.
“He’s pretty good,” Johnson said. “He only got today as a full-speed practice, but I don’t think that’s a real big issue since he’s an older player. But it hasn’t been a real good week as far as preparation for him because of the fact he didn’t get a full week.”
Ingram, who broke his hand in the first quarter of the Vanderbilt game last week, will be wearing a cast but it won’t be a full cast.
“You never know how much it’s going to restrict him,” Johnson said. “But his fingers are uncovered so he can grab to some extent.”
Given the situation, that’s the best scenario for Ingram. Fans realized just how much having use of the hand is for a defensive lineman, particularly inside. Ladi Ajiboye had a cast that covered his entire hand early on in the season and it affected his play early on. Since having it removed, Ajiboy has become much more of a force inside. The Gamecocks will need Ingram, who is second on the team in sacks with 4.5, down the stretch to be as healthy and pain-free as possible.
“When you’ve got that cast on your hand we don’t worry about a pain problem,” Johnson said. “It’s what can he do, what can’t he do. Defensive linemen has to use their hands so I’m sure it will restrict him to some degree, but it’s not painful.”
Ingram and the rest of the defensive line will be looking to have a field day against the Tennessee offensive line and quarterback Matt Simms, who is nursing a knee injury. The Gamecocks are fifth in the nation and first in the SEC in sacks with 24, while Tennessee is tied for 113th in the nation and last in the SEC in sacks given up with 25.
“We’re not basing it on their offensive line,” Johnson said. “They’re younger and they’ve had a few guys here and there out with injury, but it’s still Tennessee. Sometimes we kid ourselves talking about some of these football players for these other schools are not as good. They’re Tennessee and they’ll come down here ready to play. The kids they’ve got there they recruited because they’re great players.
“What we’ve got to do is play well and play more consistent,” Johnson continued. “I’ve got confidence in our front no matter who we’re playing, but they do need to play well and try and dominate.”
One area of weakness that the Gamecock defense has been working on to improve is its pass defense. The Gamecocks are 104th in the country and last in the SEC in pass defense. Though Tennessee is certainly not the passing machine that Kentucky or Arkansas is, that may be an area where the Vols might be able to move the ball. The Vols are sixth in the conference in passing offense, averaging just under 200 yards per game. The Gamecocks will continue to use a plan that was put in place last week after giving up a monster day for Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline two weeks ago.
“We’re mixing it up,” Johnson said of the ‘zone’ and ‘man’ defense. “What we do for each ball game is bring both and see which one works the best. What we want is for our players to be more confident and keep it simple by doing less checks. That’s our biggest problem - getting out of coverages for certain formations or certain looks - and I think that’s helped our kids focus more on their technique and play more aggressive and confident.”
No one expected the Vols to come into Williams-Brice contending for the SEC, but very few would have ever thought they would be the only winless team in SEC play and dead last in the East. Johnson, who coached at Alabama two different times, understands what the Vols are going through. During Johnson’s first stint with Alabama, he was part of a staff that went on a 31-game winning streak - 34 straight without a loss - and won a national championship and two SEC Championships. Johnson came back three years later while Alabama was on probation and the talent level dropped significantly.
“The players didn’t understand it or want to see it,” Johnson said. “Sometimes when you play in a big time program like that and all of a sudden you’re not successful you don’t want to think it’s you. They’re going through a tough situation - these guys have had three head coaches in three years.”
Chaz Sutton continues to suffer from an injured hand and had pins placed in it last week. Based on what Coach Johnson said, Sutton appears to be doubtful at best for this weekend’s game.