The South Carolina defense has been a mixed bag during the 2022 season. That was evident in the 38-27 victory over Vanderbilt. The win has the Gamecocks sitting at 6-3 and third in the SEC East. They have back-to-back conference road wins for the first time since 2013 and is bowl eligible for the second year under Shane Beamer. Things haven’t always been smooth or pretty, but there is definite progress within the program. There are also plenty of things to clean up and improve on. Whether good or bad the offense gets most of the headlines, while the defense is a work in progress as well. Forcing turnovers is the key for Clayton White’s unit. When they do this the team usually plays well. When they don’t, things can go sideways in a hurry.
Forcing Turnovers is the Key to Gamecock Defense
It has been feast or famine for the South Carolina defense at times this season. They have looked aggressive, explosive, and opportunistic in wins over Kentucky, Texas A&M, and their three nonconference opponents. Then on the flip side, they got pushed around and gashed in losses to Arkansas, Georgia, and Missouri. As stated above the win over Vanderbilt provided a mixed bag of results. There were times when the Commodores’ run game had its way, amassing over 200 yards on the ground. However, the Gamecocks were forcing turnovers to the tune of two interceptions and two fumbles that helped them leave Nashville on top. They have forced 15 turnovers in their six wins and zero in their three losses.
The run defense has been the most glaring issue for White’s unit. They are 11th in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game. Three of the last four opponents have had a 100-yard rusher. Now the Gamecocks have won all three of the games in which they allowed a 100- yard rusher, so it is not a definitive factor in the result. However, they must get better at stopping the ground attack. When this defense gets stopped or are forcing turnovers, they stay fresh and tend to play better as the game goes on. Allowing teams to gash them with the run and control the ball really stretches an already banged-up defense even thinner.
Too Many Misses
The main issue this past weekend was tackling. The Gamecocks had arguably their worst tackling performance of the season in Nashville. The display on Saturday was alarming, allowing a career-high in rushing yards to Re’Mahn Davis. It seemed that at times, defenders were more focused on trying to rip the ball from an opponent’s hands instead of taking them to the ground. All three levels of the defense struggled to tackle on Saturday. That has to change with the SEC’s best rushing attack in Florida next up on the schedule. Another sloppy display of tackling this weekend, and Anthony Richardson will make his own highlight reel. The defensive line has improved in terms of disrupting the line of scrimmage, but they must now step up in terms of finishing plays and bringing ball carriers to the ground.
The linebackers have been a point of concern all year, especially after Mo Kaba was lost for the season. The guys left in that unit are either serviceable veterans like Sherrod Greene and Brad Johnson or developing talents like Debo Williams or Stone Blanton. While each of them does some good things and contributes to the team, none of them are the kind of game-changers you need at linebackers in the SEC. In this league, you need elite-level playmakers to complement the solid contributors at each position. The Gamecock defense is lacking that game-changing ability at the second level.
No Fly Zone
The secondary has been the bright spot of the South Carolina defense. This team leads the SEC in interceptions with 11 and is sixth in the league in passing yards allowed. Some of that is due to the lack of resistance against the run, but it is also because the Gamecocks have game-changing talents on the back end that they lack at the second level. Darius Rush is having an ALL-SEC-caliber season at corner. He is very good in coverage, a solid tackler, and has an interception in two of the last three contests. Rush is also a big contributor to special teams. Cam Smith has been good at the other corner, trying to live up to the preseason hype he garnered. Marcellas Dial is tied with Rush for the team lead with two interceptions and has six passes defended.
The safety position has had its ups and downs, but considering two of the three main safeties are true freshmen, that is to be expected. Devonni Reed has been solid when available, but the transfer has battled nagging injuries all season. Freshmen DQ Smith and Nick Emmanwori have settled into their roles and show great promise for the future. Smith seems to have a knack for getting the ball, while Emmanwori is a tackling machine. Both could develop into all-conference-level defenders during their careers in garnet and black.
Next up is a trip to Gainesville to take on Florida. A win this weekend could solidify the Gamecocks in third place in the SEC East. It would also mean back-to-back victories over the Gators, a third consecutive SEC road win, and secure a winning regular season record. There is a lot to play for in the Swamp on Saturday. The Gamecocks must tackle better than they have the last two weeks, and slow down the Gators’ excellent rushing attack. If South Carolina can make them throw the ball, they should be able to force some mistakes. If they can’t slow down the ground game though it will be a long day. Forcing turnovers has been key for this team all season, and winning the takeaway battle in the Swamp will go a long way toward securing a seventh victory.