Coordinator Ellis Johnson and the South Carolina defense utilize non-conventional yet versatile base defense in the 4-2-5. Many college coaches are looking to the 4-2-5 to slow down spread offenses, provide more options for base personnel groupings, create defensive versatility, and disguise defensive strategy. This scheme uses typical down linemen (two ends and two tackles), a weak side linebacker (Will), a middle backer (MIKE), two safeties (boundary and field), two corners, and a hybrid "Spur" position. The "Spur" player is what really makes this defense unique when compared to most base 4-3 and Nickel defenses. Spur's decision making ability and athleticism makes or breaks this scheme.
The 4-2-5 as a base utilizes line play similar to the 4-3. One difference between the two is the strong side DE typically plays head up on the TE instead of lining up on his outside shoulder. This scheme also gives you many of the same blitz opportunities as the 4-3 and allows for all the standard zone packages. The advantage, when played properly, in this defense is flexibility gained utilizing the Spur.
We need to start this conversation by discussing the roles and expectations out of Will, Mike, and Spur. Johnson requires both Will and Mike to be effective run stoppers. Will must provide pass rush support and South Carolina will bring him to pressure the opposition‘s quarterback. Johnson will trade mobility for size out of Mike.
Spur is a hybrid safety/linebacker. His role is dynamic and covers a wide spectrum. Spur must be versatile enough to take on a linebacker role in run support situations and provide coverage similar to a traditional Nickel back. The Spur is also the "read man" for the defense and must quickly decipher what the offense is doing and adjust accordingly. If Spur read dictates defensive success. A correct decision by Spur creates a defensive advantage either the run or pass. An incorrect decision gets Spur out of position and leaves the defense at a disadvantage.
It is common for Spur to have the responsibilities of a defensive back resulting in a six in the box situation. This scenario implies that run support from Mike and Will becomes much more important because they are the only defenders at the second level. The skill set of this group obviously dictates how aggressive and unique a defensive coordinator can be during a football game.
Ellis Johnson uses this scheme and the hybrid Spur to disguise many of his defensive strategies. If Johnson wants to create a 4-3 look, he simply slides the Spur into a traditional linebacker spot. Should Johnson want need extra pass coverage support, the Spur can be moved over to a nickel back spot. All of these adjustments are made with base personnel. This allows the coach to avoid tipping his hand by having to shuffle DB's and linebackers in and out of the game for needed changes.
Johnson uses personnel versatility to show a wide array of looks to the defense. The hybrid Spur position and a good Will gives the coaching staff the ability to do a lot of things without substitution. Carolina can easily show a 4-3, 5-2, 4-2-1-4, 4-2-5, or 3-3-5 look utilizing base defenders. Such versatility allows for quick adjustments and gives the opposition (particularly the quarterback and/or play caller) a lot more to think about/scheme around. Further, this flexibility makes it more and more difficult for an offensive coaching staff to scheme around the defense's best players.
The Gamecocks have utilized various blitz schemes since Johnson arrived in Columbia a few years ago. In past seasons it seemed as though Johnson was bringing Will on most plays. While the Gamecocks are not quite as blitz-happy this year, Johnson is not afraid to bring the pressure outside of his front four. Look for South Carolina to use run blitzes to provide additional support for the inside linemen especially in obvious running situations.
What does this mean for this year's South Carolina team? The loss of All-American Eric Norwood has changed his strategy a bit from last season. We have not seen Will used at the end spot as we did last season. South Carolina, however, is vastly improved up front. Cliff Matthews and Devin Taylor at the ends and Ladi Ajiboye and Travian Robertson inside have done a good job all season getting after the opposition's quarterback. South Carolina has also improved against run plays inside the tackles. The only team that I recall having a big day on the ground against Carolina this season was Auburn's spread attack featuring the two headed rushing monster of Cam Newton/Michael Dyer.
Josh Dickerson and Rodney Paulk will share time at Mike, Tony Straughter at Will, and Antonio Allen at Spur. A notable name missing from this group is Shaq Wilson, who saw limited playing time early on and is requesting a medical red shirt for the 2010 season. As mentioned earlier, Johnson has been more conservative with this group this season given the Norwood's departure and Wilson's injury.
Ellis Johnson's soft zone strategy has been questioned by Gamecock fans all season. We don't expect Johnson's defensive strategy to change this week especially with Clemson's offensive struggles this season. Look for a lot of zone by the Gamecocks as this defense will be content to pressure Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker with their improved front four and make Parker try to methodically move down the field.
Here are David Cutcliff's thoughts on how he would defeat this scheme courtesy www.tidesports.com
"The particular scheme still goes back to the eight-man front principle, so we try to spread the defense and try to attack the perimeter of it first because it's a very containing defense if you let it be," said Cutcliffe. "That's kind of been our way to attack it. The other way we try to attack it is we try to make sure they can handle verticals down the field. If they can't handle verticals, we're going to throw the ball down the field."
As described by Cutcliff, I wuold like to see Clemson take a few shots down the field. Clemson will probably try to use play action and may try a couple zone read plays at times in an attempt to get the Spur out of position. Clemson will need to get decent protection against SC's front four and stay patient as the receivers hunt for weak spots in the zone. Tigers will look to get some of their zone blocking plays going early and have Harper or possibly Ellington bump these runs to the outside.
Arkansas was able to use a resourceful passing attack, perimeter runs, and broken tackles to put points on the board against Carolina. Kentucky used an air attack in the second half of their contest to get a win. Auburn used Cam Newton's arm and legs to put up points against these folks, so it is not impossible.
If you are still interested, I would recommend checking in with the folks over at Bleacher Report as they put together a pretty good overview of this defense and more on South Carolina's use of it over the past couple of years.