A number of opposition fans, and even USC fans, often seem pretty confused about what kind of base defense Ellis Johnson runs at South Carolina. I was talking to one 'Cocks fan at the UGA game who kept referring to our three linebackers, when we normally only play two linebackers at a time. Another UGA fan kept referring to Eric Norwood as a defensive end. However, this confusion is understandable, because Ellis Johnson's defense is built around versatile players who can align themselves in a number of different ways to create confusion.
The goal here is to give a basic overview of how the defense is supposed to work and the roles various players play in it. Finally, I will evaluate what has gone right and wrong for the defense thus far and what will be needed for it to function as an elite unit this year.
The base formation can mostly simply be called a 4-2-5 defense. That is, four down linemen, 2 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs. Normally this would be called a nickel formation, but for reasons we will see, this isn't really a nickel defense.
The primary difference is that the fifth defensive back is more of a linebacker/strong safety hybrid than a typical nickel back. In a typical nickel scheme, the extra defensive back either plays a deep zone or covers the slot receiver one-on-one. In Ellis Johnson's scheme, the "spur" plays much more of a run-support/blitzing/underneath-coverage role than a nickel back.
So, in many ways you could call this defense a 4-2-1-4 defense: four down linemen, two linebackers, one spur, and four true defensive backs.
The most common defensive play-call in this formation has the four down linemen attacking the line of scrimmage and the two linebackers playing primarily run-support roles and covering backs out of the backfield. The "spur" covers the short/intermediate middle of the field in a zone defense, the two corners play zone schemes on the outside, and the two safeties play a two-deep zone.
The Subtle Tweaks
As mentioned earlier, the true hallmark of this defense is having several players that can play multiple roles. As mentioned earlier, the spur should have the ability to play everything from essentially a weakside linebacker's role to a free safety role.
In addition, the weakside linebacker oftentimes will play more of a pass-rush/defensive end type role. Last year this was Eric Norwood's specialty, which often led to some actually considering him a defensive end. Depending on the down and distance, the weakside linebacker will often sub for one of the defensive ends with a quicker linebacker taking the weakside linebacker's position. However, this has happened much less this year, with the true defensive ends, Devin Taylor and Cliff Matthews, playing almost every down.
In another tweak on the alignment, one of the defensive ends is often called to drop into short zone coverage after initially lining up at the line of scrimmage. This can give the defense the look of a 3-3-5 or 3-4 defense.
Adding all of this up, with the same personnel the defense can play:
- A base 4-2-1-4 defense, as outlined above
- A more traditional 4-3 defense, with the spur essentially becoming a third linebacker
- A 5-2-4 defense, with the weakside linebacker essentially lining up as a fifth defensive lineman and the spur essentially playing a linebacker position
- A traditional 4-2-5 nickel defense, with the spur essentially playing the role of a traditional nickel back
- A 5-1-5 defense, with the weakside linebacker playing a pass-rush role and the spur playing a traditional nickel back role.
- A 3-3-5 defense, with one of the defensive ends dropping into short zone coverage (or being subbed outright) and the spur playing the role of a traditional nickel back
- A traditional 3-4 defense, with one of the defensive ends playing a short zone (or being subbed outright) and the spur coming up to play a linebacker role
This is why, when running properly, this defense can create headaches for opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. South Carolina's defense can run a variety of schemes without tipping their hand by subbing personnel.
The key positions of the defense
Two positions in the defense stand out as the biggest keys: weakside linebacker and spur.
The spur is important because his reads and calls either put South Carolina at a numbers advantage or disadvantage. If he reads a handoff and the QB keeps it, then South Carolina will have a hard time stopping a mobile quarterback (see Cam Newton's performance). If he reads run and it's play action, the pass defense is a little undermanned in their zones. A smart, athletic spur can make this a dominant unit. With a subpar spur, the defense will find itself out of position and unable to defend against even average attacks.
Weakside linebacker is important for many of the same reasons, though the weakside linebacker doesn't typically have to make many reads. The weakside linebacker is sort of the "moving piece" of this defense that, with the right player, can wreak havoc on an offensive coordinator's plans and cause the QB to have nightmares. With a subpar weakside linebacker, this defense can get very vanilla and easy to predict.
How this year's defense works
What I've described above is Ellis Johnson's overall defensive philosophy. However, one thing he has shown over the years is that he varies and/or limits what he calls based on the current personnel he has.
For instance, last year Eric Norwood was clearly the most talented player he had, so he tended to call defenses designed to move Norwood around, so that the opposition couldn't "scheme him out of the play" very often. Norwood was not only a physically gifted player, but he was also a very mentally sound player and could play a lot of positions on defense, allowing Ellis Johnson to do this.
This year, there doesn't seem to be an Eric Norwood-type player amongst the linebackers or ends, which has led to what may appear to be more conservative play-calling. Very rarely this year have you seen anything other than the four down linemen rushing the passer and the two linebackers trying to stop the run.
This may be for two reasons:
First, Johnson seems to have two great pure defensive ends in Cliff Matthews and Devin Taylor. As great as Norwood was, the reason he rushed the passer so often and had so many sacks was that sometimes South Carolina had a hard time getting to the quarterback with their pure defensive ends last year.
Secondly, thus far they've mostly been missing Shaq Wilson, who is the only linebacker that's really versatile enough to play the Norwood role. Johnson seems reluctant to play his backups in anything other than base schemes when Shaq Wilson is not in there. And even when Shaq Wilson is in there, he's not Eric Norwood.
The good things thus far
The four down linemen have played exceptionally well. South Carolina has gotten decent pressure, despite blitzing less than I can ever remember this team blitzing. They've mostly stuffed traditional up-the-gut running attacks.
The linebackers have played decently in run support.
The bad things thus far
Devonte Holloman at strong safety and Antonio Allen and Damario Jeffery at spur have made a lot of bad reads, especially against Cam Newton. The spur is essentially the quarterback of this defense on the field, and against a deception-based attack, such as Auburn's, his reads are critical. I could count on one hand the number of times that the spur made the right read on a quarterback spread-option run against Auburn. If Cam Newton kept the ball, the spur was following the running back; if the spur stayed on Cam Newton, he had actually handed it off.
Despite NFL talent at both corners, they haven't really made plays. Culliver's transition to CB hasn't been as smooth as hoped. While he's played solidly, Stephon Gillmore's play hasn't really been at the All-SEC level South Carolina had expected. Akeem Auguste hasn't played poorly, but he hasn't been a factor either.
The linebackers make the plays they should, but that's about it. Again, this is somewhat understandable and will hopefully improve now that Shaq Wilson is back.
What to look for going forward
Shaq Wilson being reintegrated into the schemes. Shaq has been away, and his position is critical in making this defense hard for an offense to read. With him out, it's mostly been a talented but predictable unit that can be exploited by talented players.
If Shaq Wilson can come in and allow Ellis Johnson to again use the kind of diversity of calls that this defense is capable of, then this could be one of the top, if not the top, defenses in the SEC. If it's more of the same, this is a slightly above-average defense in the SEC, which isn't bad, but won't get you to Atlanta.
The bye week could not come at a better time for this defense. Hopefully they are angry about their performance, or lack thereof, against Auburn, and the bye week allows Ellis Johnson to really get Shaq back into the game plan.
Shaq Wilson needs to become that player that the opposition has to worry about and game-plan against. This allows all the other pieces to more easily click into place. The ends will become even more dominant, taking some pressure off the spur to make the big plays and forcing the offense to react to the defense, and not the reverse. The safeties can just sit back and pick off pressured deep balls.
This may very well be the most talented defense Spurrier has had; however, it has thus far lacked major playmakers at the two play-making positions, weakside linebacker and spur. If South Carolina can adequately address these two issues during the bye week, they could have a shot against Alabama and could definitely find themselves as the favorites to win the East. If these issues linger for the rest of the season, South Carolina may find themselves repeating the same sort of disappointing finish they've had the last few years.