South Carolina Football: The ugly truth about the Gamecock defense

South Carolina football's O'Donnell Fortune struggling to try to tackle Florida's Montrell Johnson. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina football's O'Donnell Fortune struggling to try to tackle Florida's Montrell Johnson. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /
3 of 5
South Carolina Football
South Carolina football freshman safety Jalon Kilgore. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports /

South Carolina Football’s Defense:
The Personnel

One of the most ridiculous aspects of the Gamecocks’ defensive struggles this season is that the unit has some talented individual players.

Freshman safety Jalon Kilgore and redshirt sophomore defensive lineman TJ Sanders have been pretty good the entirety of this season.

Players like Debo Williams, Nick Emmanwori, Boogie Huntley, Tonka Hemingway, and Marcellas Dial have had multiple games in which they performed well.

O’Donnell Fortune, DQ Smith, David Spaulding, Jordan Strachan, and Stone Blanton have all had some big moments and/or long stretches of solid play.

However, even with all of those things being true, the Gamecocks have not been good on defense. Some of this has been the product of underperforming players, and some of this has been the product of misuse of players.

Frankly, there have been times this season when players the Gamecocks were counting on have not played well enough. Marcellas Dial has had games when he was very good in coverage but has also been completely lost at other times. The same is true for his running mate at corner O’Donnell Fortune.

Linebacker Debo Williams and defensive back DQ Smith have had some really good moments and some really poor moments.

Linebacker Stone Blanton has struggled for much of the year, and the entire defensive end position has been a void of non-productivity except for a few drives from Jordan Strachan.

However, despite all of that, the positional usage of the Gamecock players might be the most glaring issue with personnel.

The nickel spot has been horrible all season against the pass (other than a pretty good half from KaJuan Banks against North Carolina). Keenan Nelson struggled and then got hurt. Banks hasn’t played much after his appearance in the first game.

Safeties DQ Smith, David Spaulding, and Nick Emmanwori have gotten the rest of the nickel snaps this season, and those guys are not man coverage defensive backs. Yet, they continue to be utilized in man coverage.

Opposing teams have taken a basketball approach and gone “matchup hunting,” repeatedly moving their best receivers inside since Clayton White still has not adjusted. Smith and Emmanwori are really good tacklers and run support players, and they have their moments in zone coverage. But playing a role they shouldn’t be asked to play, they’ve struggled in man.

In the Gamecocks’ last three games (Mississippi State, @ Tennessee, and Florida), receivers Tulu Griffin (MSU), Squirrel White (UT), Ricky Pearsall (UF), and Tre Wilson (UF) dominated from the slot. While not playing every snap in the slot, those four receivers each played the majority of their snaps inside and combined for 509 yards against South Carolina in those three games.

TJ Sanders, the Gamecocks’ best defensive lineman this season, has only been a sometimes-starter and doesn’t play enough snaps despite his and Tonka Hemingway’s versatility to play inside or outside; with Carolina’s struggles at end, sliding one of them outside should happen more often than it does.

White has become pretty blitz-heavy due to the defensive line’s inability to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks (just 2.5 sacks from EDGE rushers). However, those blitzes haven’t made it home very often (also 2.5 sacks from blitzing linebackers and secondary players).

In fact, there have been plenty of times this season when a blitzer has missed an opportunity to make a play. When that happens, there is a hole somewhere in the defense, and the Gamecocks have surrendered a large number of failed-blitzes-turned-big-gains this season.

Another major personnel usage issue comes with the linebackers. Neither Debo Williams nor Stone Blanton are very good in coverage. Yet, they usually play together and are often left in charge of covering the middle of the field in obvious passing situations. Just like the safeties being asked to man up on receivers as pseudo-nickels, this is not putting the players on defense in the best situation to succeed.