The ninth-ranked South Carolina football team practiced for the 27th and final time before the season opener Thursday night against Vanderbilt in Nashville. A steady rain across the state of South Carolina Tuesday afternoon forced the Gamecocks indoors where they got another chance to practice on field turf, which Vandy now has on their field. More rain is in the forecast Thursday night in Nashville.
“I think there’s a 40% chance of rain but we both have to play in it,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “Whatever the conditions are we’re ready to play.”
The Carolina defense embarrassed Vanderbilt last season, limiting the Commodores to just three points and 77 yards of offense. That was before quarterback Jordan Rodgers took over for Larry Smith. While Smith was predominantly a running quarterback that allowed teams to stack the box, Rodgers is much more of a dual quarterback. Rodgers completed 108-of-216 passes for 1,524 yards and nine touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He was also second behind Zac Stacy in rushing yards with 420 yards and four additional touchdowns.
“They threw the ball a lot more,” Ward said. “The quarterback they had prior to him was more of a runner and didn’t throw the ball as well. He gave Coach Franklin an opportunity to open up his playbook and they throw the ball a lot more.”
Getting pressure on Rodgers and containing him inside the pocket will largely be dependent on the defensive end duo of Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. Both Clowney and Taylor are preseason candidates for the Ted Hendricks Award watch list for the best defensive lineman in the nation. Clowney is also on the watch lists for the Bednarik, Nagurski, Lombardi, and Walter Camp awards. Taylor is on the Nagurski, Bednarik, and Lombardi watch lists. With both players being recognized for so many different awards, it’s easy to see why they are considered one of the best defensive end duos in the country.
“If they are as good as advertised they will have a big ball game,” Ward said. “I’ve talked to Jadeveon about it and I’ve talked to Devin about it. If we have big time players they need to play in big time games and this is a big time game.”
The athletic of the defense as a whole, particularly the defensive line, plays right into the hands of what Ward likes to do. Going back to his playing days at Alabama, Ward has loved to be aggressive. That has translated into his coaching philosophies and he has promised time and time again that there will be much more blitzing this season than in the past. It has been accepted with enthusiasm among the players and they have bought in to what Ward is selling.
“I think it’s my mentality,” Ward said. “I’ve always been a guy that likes to be the dictator and not the one being dictated to. It’s part of my personality and that’s the way I’m going to coach them. They understand that I’m going to put them in a position to hopefully make plays and we’re going to be aggressive to do it.”
The problem with bringing pressure and blitzing often is that it leaves your defensive backs on islands with the wide receivers. That is not a good mixture Thursday night as Carolina’s weakness – inexperienced secondary – is Vandy’s strength. 6’3 junior Jordan Matthews is Vandy’s leading receiver, catching 41 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns last season. He will likely be matched up with Victor Hampton, Carolina’s ball-hawking cornerback that has the most experience in the secondary outside of senior safety D.J. Swearinger and Spur DeVonte Holloman. Matthews is not the only target for Rodgers; Chris Boyd caught 31 passes for 473 yards and a team-leading eight touchdowns. He will likely be matched up with Jimmy Legree, who replaced starter Akeem Auguste after Auguste went down with a groin injury.
Legree won a closely-contested battle with redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian. Legree appeared to be the clear favorite when news came of Auguste’s injury, but Christian stepped up in recent weeks and made a push for the starting job. Both will play Thursday and it will depend on who plays better that gets the most playing time.
“Coach Brown will handle that part of it,” Ward said. “When he feels that it’s time for Ahmad to go in, he will put him in. I’m letting him handle the substitutions and the thing that Coach Spurrier told us all is that he wants the best players on the field playing as many plays as they can.”
Swearinger and Holloman will be the leaders of the Gamecock secondary and Ward will rely on their experience Thursday night.
“D.J. and DeVonte have played a lot of football here,” Ward said. “All the seniors know the importance of this season and they want to continue what we’ve started the last couple of years. The only way to do that is to win ball games. Playing a conference opponent, an Eastern division opponent, first game of the season is a big game.”
Despite the inexperience, particularly in that secondary, Ward has been pleased with the progress of the squad over the course of the spring and the fall. The coaches have preached over and over about understanding the playbook and being technically and fundamentally sound, something that has come back to bite the Gamecocks in recent years.
“I think we’re ahead of where we were a year ago,” Ward said. “It’s because we try to simplify things a lot, but I think the guys understand that we’re not 2011 (team), we’re the 2012 team and our performance is going to be based off of how we perform against Vandy. You can tell from the concentration level of where these young men are."