Changes Needed For Gamecocks

By Matt Barber Follow on Twitter @dixiefriedsport

The 2014 season is now over and there wasn't a team in the country that failed to meet expectations more than the South Carolina Gamecocks this year.  Entering the season South Carolina was a Top 10 team by most every preseason poll and was the media's pick at SEC Media Days to win the down SEC East.   Unfortunately the the loyal fans of the Gamecocks one of the worst defenses in Gamecocks history was fielded and the season ended with a 6-6 record and a team clinging to hopes they will go bowling. 

Should we all have seen this happening?  The Gamecocks lost the number 1 pick overall in the NFL Draft last year in Jadeveon Clowney.  They also lost other key contributors on defense like Victor Hampton and Kelcy Quarles.  Still, Gamecock fans were confident that the USC defense would still be good enough to keep USC in contention in 2014.  This confidence was helped by the fact that in the preseason defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward told media and fans that he felt like his 2014 group would be better than the 2013 unit.   What were we all thinking?

There was hope with guys like Skai Moore showing promise in 2013 and a linebacker unit that returned lots of returning experience.   Yet, fans, media and I guess Lorenzo Ward failed to recognize severe issues on the defensive front.  No longer was their a pass rush like USC fans had become accustomed to.  No longer could the Gamecocks prevent outside running plays with quality defensive ends.   This was a unit that had severe issues up and down the two deep.

Was it scheme?  In the preseason all the talk was about Ward running a 3-4 instead of the 4-2-5 that USC had won big with the past several seasons under Ward and Ellis Johnson.  The thought process was that USC could use its experience at linebacker to its benefit in the 3-4.  This never worked though.  Blitz packages were vanilla and uneffective and an inexperienced defensive front that relied on "riding and reading" as opposed to aggressive gap shooting failed.   The lack of a pass rush was exposed as early as game 1 as now Texas A&M backup QB Kenny Hill shattered Johnny Manziel's single game pass records with over 500 yards passing.  

Was it inexperience?  USC wasn't one of the youngest teams in the SEC this year.  The Gamecocks did return 6 starters on defense from last year's 11-2 team that was among the top of the SEC in most defensive stats in 2013.  If inexperience was the excuse early on, then we should've seen improvement from that defense by year's end, but we didn't.  Yes, USC did hold Florida and South Alabama under 30, but those are both bad offensive units.   Clemson had its way with the Gamecocks allowing 0 hurries and 0 sacks with a QB that was playing with a torn ACL.   

Was it recruiting evaluation?  Maybe, but most of the players the Gamecocks have on defense did have SEC offers.  It's not like the Gamecocks haven't had top 25 recruiting classes the last several years.  USC still recruits well and will bring in another class that is filled with defensive talent in 2015.   While there certainly wasn't a Clowney, Gilmore, or even Quarles on this unit there was guys that were SEC caliber recruits coming out of high school.  

My thought process and I think the majority of Gamecocks right now was that this was a coaching issue.  The South Carolina Gamecocks, who entered 2014 with 33 wins in 3 years and has a legendary head coach just doesn't have big time coaching talent on defense.  Lorenzo Ward's first Defensive Coordinator job was at South Carolina, Deke Adams was part of a bad defensive coaching staff at North Carolina, Kirk Botkin was part of his alma mater's coaching staff at Arkansas but had no major coaching experience prior to being on Petrino's staff, and Grady Brown came from Southern Miss with no major coaching experience at an elite program.  

How does this happen?  How is it that a SEC program that has been one of the nation's best since 2010 have so many key defensive coaches without any elite level experience.  Look, I'm not unrealistic, I know The University of South Carolina is not Alabama, but it isn't Wake Forest either.   South Carolina has too much money and has too big of a name of a head coach to not have assistants with major college coaching experience.   Things have to change and they must change soon.

South Carolina fans are loyal.  They packed Williams-Brice Stadium in the 90s with 70,000 fans a game pre 1996 and 80,000 fans a game after the last expansion.   For decades USC fans put up with mediocre results and always had the hope of "next year" .  Things have changed though.   A new legion of Gamecock fans have tasted success and will no longer put up with 6-6 seasons and "just going to a bowl".  Just beating Clemson or Georgia in a single season is no longer enough.  I don't think Gamecock fans are unreasonable and expect Alabama success, but they do expect top 20 caliber teams and 2014 was't that type of team and unless things chance 2015 won't field a top 20 team either. 

College Football fans speak with their pockets at major programs.  When things go bad for elite programs then fans stop donating, stop showing up for games, and won't return until things are fixed.  We've seen this happen at elite programs all over the country and even to an extent with the Gamecock Basketball program.   Right now Gamecock fans don't have confidence in their defensive coaching staff and unless changes are made you will see major hits to season ticket sales next year and Gamecock Club numbers will suffer.

The University of South Carolina can not afford a season or two of mediocre financial numbers or success on the football field.  Since South Carolina's last expansion of Williams-Brice Stadium in 1996, every SEC school has expanded their stadiums except USC and Vanderbilt.  Facility upgrades to W-B are planned, but it takes money to keep the race with other SEC schools to continue.  6-6 or 7-5 seasons aren't going to open up the pocket books of the big money donors and it isn't going to increase membership in the lower levels of the Gamecock Club.  To compete in the facilities race the Gamecocks can't accept mediocrity.

It also isn't going to help South Carolina that the SEC East isn't going to be down forever.  Georgia is already on solid foundation and while they haven't won a National Championship under Richt, they are on a solid foundation and will remain a top 20 program under his leadership.  Tennessee and Florida are both elite programs with larger fanbases than South Carolina and those two programs won't be down forever.    Tennessee is already seeing improvement under Butch Jones(who is 2-0 against USC) and likely enters next year as a preseason top 25 team.  Florida doesn't have a coach now, but should be able to land a proven winner.  Even if Florida doesn't return to their elite status they had under Spurrier and Meyer, they will soon return to being at least a top 20 school.  Gary Pinkel has Missouri on a solid foundation and has won 5 division championships since 2007(3 in Big XII, 2 in SEC).   Even Kentucky seems to be improving under Stoops.   The rest of the SEC East is showing signs of improvement, USC can't just settle with what it currently has.

Then the Gamecocks are competing against a potential monster in Texas A&M every year out of the West.  A mediocre staff can't compete with a school that has the instate talent A&M has and the financial resources.  USC must do its best to also stay ahead of the Aggies, which right now seems like a tall task.

Let's also not kid ourselves.  Steve Spurrier, who I do think will be back in 2015, isn't going to be around forever.  At best I believe Spurrier has 4 years left in him, at worse 2015 is his last year.   This means Spurrier has to be aggressive in his defensive staff.  We all know Spurrier controls the offense, but he has always given the defensive coordinator control of that side of the ball.  How can Spurrier rely on a defensive coordinator who thought this unit was better in the preseason than last year's squad?  How can Spurrier rely on a group of defensive assistants that Lorenzo Ward didn't trust in the press box at midseason?   Spurrier needs experience and leadership on that side of the ball and right now he has a group of guys who might as well be interns learning on the job.  

Yes, the offense has had issues in the past and the offensive line didn't live up to expectations, but I don't expect changes on this side of the ball.  First, changing offensive line coaches year after year won't work. You have to keep consistency with scheme and personnel for an offensive line to work, if not you could have a multiple year rebuilding project. Plus, Elliot for the most part has improved the Gamecocks offensive line in my opinion.  Spurrier Jr. isn't leaving and we all know as long as the Ol' Ball Coach is at USC he is calling the plays.   Mangus has done a solid job as QB Coach considering he's never had a true elite talent at that position.

This is a good time to hire a defensive coordinator.  Ellis Johnson, Will Muschamp, and Bo Pelini are all on the job market right now and all have proven to lead elite defenses in the SEC.  Take a lead from Clemson and open your pocket books to your assistant coaches.  If Spurrier has to take a slight paycut, so be it, he isn't hurting financially.

The time is now.  The decision must be made now.  The Gamecocks can either sit back and settle for being mediocre or they can try to become elite.  Just don't expect fans to be like they were in the past with their money and season ticket orders if mediocrity is accepted like it was for so many decades at The University of South Carolina