Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

South Carolina defensive coordinator Clayton White describes defense like a math equation.

In principle, it’s a matter of finding the best matchups numerically and how one can split the field in order to account for any given offense’s personnel.

“I think my high school math teacher would be excited about me talking about math right now,” White said through a laugh. “… But football is math, man. I promise you. That’s all that we sit down and do is (see) who can outnumber who.”

Basic algebra aside, South Carolina has a problem that needs solving in its secondary.

Gone are the days of Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn patrolling the back end of the USC defense. Instead, it’s a mix of untapped inexperience and a slew of transfers that ought to hold down a unit that feels like it’s being pieced together with masking tape rather than iron welding heading into the summer.

“We need to have a certain swagger, which we don’t have just because we’re so green to have a swagger as a group right now,” cornerbacks coach Torrian Gray said in April. “… A lot of guys are learning how to play football on this level, what it takes in meeting rooms, what it takes in the individual period, what it takes doing a specific technique.”

Safety R.J. Roderick is among the most experienced pieces on the back line given his 31 appearances and 134 career tackles, though he battled injuries in 2020. Redshirt junior Jaylan Foster — who was granted a sixth year of eligibility — should also be a crucial cog alongside Roderick at safety.

Cornerbacks Darius Rush and Cam Smith are among the more capable bodies on the outside despite limited opportunities in previous years. Smith flashed dynamic ability a season ago, notching interceptions against Vanderbilt and Missouri, but was beaten in coverage too often. Should Smith find a way to be more consistent downfield, he has the makings of a playmaker at corner.

Rush — a one-time wide receiver who flipped to defensive back in Columbia — has appeared in 20 games during his Gamecock career, though he’s mostly been relied on as a special-teamer. Rush also missed spring ball recovering from shoulder surgery.

Georgia Southern transfer David Spaulding is perhaps the biggest cornerback question mark. Spaulding notched seven tackles, one pass breakup and took an interception for a score against Appalachian State during his redshirt freshman season with the Eagles, but has yet to face Southeastern Conference competition.

Fellow transfers Carlins Platel (Assumption College) and Isaiah Norris (Georgia Military College) also project as crucial pieces. Platel arrived on campus last week along with the bulk of South Carolina’s newcomers and brings three years of starting experience from the Division II level to Columbia.

A high school teammate of Zacch Pickens at T.L. Hanna, Norris spent his first year of college football at the New Mexico Military Institute before heading to Georgia Military College. But with junior college football moved to the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been nearly two years since Norris actually suited up in a game.

JUCO cornerback Marcellas Dial, who also played at Georgia Military College, and redshirt freshman O’Donnell Fortune have drawn wide acclaim of their own during the spring. Like most every other defensive back on the roster, both have little experience to fall back on.

“For a guy his size, he’s a physically-minded football player,” White said of Fortune. “He brings it. He tries to knock people out. He tries to be a physical football player.”

South Carolina’s secondary has been maligned throughout the spring as much for its lack of depth as it has its perceived inconsistencies and limited upside. But for a team that hasn’t exactly been a world beater in pass defense in recent years, it will take just a middling effort to match teams of years past.

Since 2015 — Steve Spurrier’s last year as USC coach — South Carolina’s pass defense hasn’t ranked better than sixth in the SEC and sits an average rank of 8.8 in the conference over that span. The Gamecocks have also averaged a finish of 9.8 in the SEC in passes defended — a stat helped in huge part by a third-place finish in 2017.

Mukuamu and Horn were legitimate shutdown pieces when both were on the field during their time in Columbia. With that pair off to the NFL, the Gamecocks’ secondary has a stiff challenge in replacing them and finding the consistency needed to match up with the SEC’s increasingly explosive offenses.

“… We’re super thin at linebacker and super thin in the secondary right now,” head coach Shane Beamer said earlier this spring. “It is what it is. It’s not like it’s changed, and so we just got to continue to make sure we develop enough guys that can help us at those positions, and that’s the main thing.”