We have worked together this week with Garnet and Black Attack to show the other side of the coin going into Saturday's game in Columbia. We tried to keep it civil and get Cockfan's perspective on the SC football team and strategies going into the final regular season game for both teams. Our responses to their questions can be seen here.
Garcia has progressed nicely this season. The biggest goals for Garcia after last season were to gain a better grasp of the offense, to learn to protect the ball better, and to learn that he can't rely on his feet to make plays in the college game. He's succeeded in each case. He understands the playbook, has thrown few interceptions (a welcome change after four years of Blake Mitchell and Chris Smelley), and gets happy feet less than he used to. He's really come a long way, and I believe he's in position to break our single-season yardage record if he puts up big numbers against the Tigers and our bowl opponent.
As far as Alshon goes, I think his emergence is partially due to the fact that he's just a great talent. He wasn't very present early on in the year because he didn't know the offense very well, but once he had learned his position, he was ready to go out and contribute. Spurrier always said he was a talent, a guy who could make big catches whenever he's in position to do so. That turned out to be true. The only other guy that might rival him in talent and athletic ability is Tori Gurley, but Gurley is a converted defensive back and still needs some work on fundamentals, I think. Moe Brown is also a talented receiver but is more of a speed threat and clearly not the all-around monster Alshon is.
As far as the running game goes, I think there's been more progress than you might see. We actually have a moderately competent running game now. Kenny Miles and Jarvis Giles both average over 5 ypc, and Brian Maddox played well against Florida after a slow start to his season. So, we have solid but not great numbers, which is certainly better than what we had a year ago. The problem is that we fail to commit to the run at times, especially in the second half of games. We at times seem to totally abandon it. I'm putting that on the coaching staff rather than player execution.
The offensive line, in general, is better than in years past. Again, it's not great, but it's improved. Frankly, I think the biggest improvement is in run blocking, and that's the one we're taking least advantage of. Pass protection might be a little better than last year, but it's still quite suspect, as the sacks numbers suggest. The line is also penalty prone, which has killed just as many drives this year as the sacks.
The continued problems, hopefully, will be addressed in the offseason. I think we all had great expectations that Eric Wolford could come in and completely change the character of our line, but we're seeing now that perhaps it takes time for a line to learn a new scheme. Wolford promised that we'd see more zone blocking, but we really haven't seen much of that at all until recently, so perhaps Wolford just needs time to institute these and other changes that he hopes to use to get us to the next level.
I think it's a combination of all the factors you mention. Depth at tackle has been an issue for us in years past and continues to be this year. We came into the year with a good two-deep at tackle, but a season-ending injury to Travian Robertson and a nagging injury to Nathan Pepper have cut into our depth. We're still OK at the position, as Pepper, Ladi Ajiboye, and Melvin Ingram are all solid players, but we clearly begin to tire out at the end of games against teams that pound us; see our game against Alabama.
Scheme is also an issue. We typically run a 4-2-5 that places extra speed on the field in the form of the Spur position, which is basically a roving safety. This scheme is designed to defend the pass and particularly the spread option, as the greater speed on the field makes us less vulnerable to fast runners in space. On the other hand, the lack of a third linebacker in most of our schemes means that we're a little softer inside, as teams like Alabama and Tennessee have been able to expose.
Finally, I think technique is an issue this year. This wasn't a problem last year, but this year's team doesn't tackle very well.
As far as how to solve this problem, we haven't seen the coaches move Norwood to the middle, which has been a fairly constant topic for discussion among fans. I'm not sure if I think this is a good idea or not; Norwood would be a better run stopper than the diminutive Shaq Wilson, but he's also a monster on the outside, often taking two blockers and still getting his share of sacks. It would change our defensive dynamic significantly to move him. At any rate, the coaches don't seem to be into the idea.
One idea that I'd like to see the coaches explore in the offseason is varying the schemes. The 4-2-5 is great against Florida's spread and, to a lesser degree, offenses like Petrino's air attack and Ole Miss's idiosyncratic offense, which relies on a mix of passing the ball and getting Dexter McCluster on the edge. On the other hand, it doesn't work so well against Alabama, Tennessee, or the downhill running attack Florida has adopted at times this year. I would like to see us explore moving to a 4-3 more often against those teams, at least if we can find the personnel to do so.
I think both are great coordinators, clearly. Both have had great defenses at Carolina despite not having the benefits of the kind of talent an LSU or a Florida can have. I will say that in some ways what Strong did is more impressive, in that Johnson has had the benefit of more talent to work with. One of the amazing things about those Lou Holtz Outback Bowl teams is that they really weren't as talented as our teams now are. That staff really got the most out of those guys. Johnson, though, is still doing a great job.
You can also count me as part of the group that would love to see us explore Strong as a possible head coach when Spurrier hits the road.
That's right; we run with three backs--actually four if you include Bryce Sherman--and each have different styles. Kenny Miles has gotten most of the playing time this year. He's a good all-around back that runs hard downfield and combines moderate speed with the ability to break tackles. Jarvis Giles is more of a speedster, a guy who I'd like to see us get the ball to in space more often. Sherman is a dimunitive burner in the mold of LSU's Trindon Holliday; you'll only see us use him in gadget plays and packages that are specially designed to get him the ball in space. Brian Maddox is more of a power back and is the likely starter this weekend. He's also a good blocker and receiver, which is one reason that Spurrier continues to play him despite the fact that he doesn't seem to run the ball as well as the other two.
I don't like to rank the backs because each is different. I do, though, think we could utilize them better. I think we should, for the most part, use Maddox and Miles, Maddox in short-yardage and obvious passing situations and Miles in all other situations. Giles I think we should use as a utility player at this point, as is already the case for Sherman. Basically, I think we should rotate the group more often rather than trying to settle on one or the other, which is what we've been doing.
I think, first of all, that we need to get back to not turning the ball over. We were a very low-turnover team early in the season, and while Garcia certainly isn't reincarnating Blake Mitchell now, he isn't protecting the ball quite as well as he did early in the year. That hurt us against Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida. If we can get back to not turning the ball over against Clemson, our defense will be able to keep us in the game until the end. I do think we can succeed here, but it won't be easy against Clemson's pass rush.
I'd also like to see us do some of the things I've alluded to in the above answers. This offense has had trouble scoring touchdowns all year, and I think getting back to the running game and short passing game might help us do better there. Our basic MO at this point is to move the ball well on our side of the field by running our basic offense and then to go straight for the jugular as soon as we get to the opponents 35 or so. Predictably, this tends to result in incomplete passes, interceptions, and sacks that take us out of field goal range. Now, I'm not averse to throwing deep for the score. However, when you do it all the time, opponents know it's coming, and they have a safety play smart on the deep throw and blitz all their big fellas. The results are predictable. I'd like to see us get back to just trying to move the ball into the redzone and go for more high-percentage scores.
Sorry, but there are some things about the Gamecocks that we just don't like to share with Clemson people. This is one of them.