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Missouri at South Carolina: Can the Gamecock defense find its misplaced aggression?

South Carolina's defense has made fewer disruptive plays than anybody in the country through four games. For Missouri's sake, hopefully we're still saying that after five games.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Last week at Football Outsiders, I wrote a piece about the Havoc Rate measure people were enjoying. In it were tidbits like...

  • Missouri's defensive line alone had a Havoc Rate of 11.7%, best in the country among lines and better than 22 entire defenses.
  • South Carolina's entire defense had a rate of just 7.5%, easily the worst in the country. Only Texas Tech was within a percentage point of the Gamecocks.

Through three games -- two against spread offenses (Texas A&M, East Carolina) and one against a more power-oriented Georgia offense -- the Gamecocks had been bystanders on defense.

The average went down after the Vanderbilt game. They made only four disruptive plays (two TFLs, one INT, one PBU) against a mostly weak Commodore defense; granted, the interception was returned for a touchdown, which helped SC overcome two kick return touchdowns and a 6.9-yard per-play average for VU and win by 14 points. But allowing 6.9 yards per play to Vandy is still awful, and the primary culprit is a complete lack of play-making. South Carolina's linebackers and safeties are pretty experienced and decent, but the line is getting no push, and the cornerbacks are almost impossibly young. That's a good thing for Missouri, obviously, because the Gamecocks are going to figure out ways to score points, and Missouri is going to have to keep up.

Gerald Dixon (6'2, 274, So.) (9.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 1 QB hurry)
Mason Harris (6'3, 235, Jr.) (4.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 QB hurry)

J.T. Surratt (6'2, 310, Sr.) (6.0 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 QB hurry)
Abu Lamin (6'4, 302, So.) (4.0 tackles)
Deon Green (6'4, 289, So.)

Gerald Dixon, Jr. (6'3, 323, Jr.) (5.0 tackles, 1 TFL)
Phillip Dukes (6'3, 323, Jr.) (4.5 tackles, 1 TFL)
Kelsey Griffin (6'2, 310, So.) (3.5 tackles, 1 TFL)
Taylor Stallworth (6'2, 293, Fr.) (0.5 tackles)

Darius English (6'6, 241, So.) (10.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry)
Cedrick Cooper (6'2, 225, Jr.) (1.0 tackles, 1 QB hurry)

There is one lineman among South Carolina's 14 leading tacklers. That's crazy. Obviously linebackers and defensive backs are typically going to be your team leaders, but you still need linemen doing something. Only two linemen have more than 6.0 tackles (Shane Ray and Markus Golden, by the way, have combined for 35.5, and Golden missed a game), and the 11 players above have combined for 7 TFLs and two sacks. Shane Ray has 9.5 and six by himself.

So yeah, the Gamecocks are lacking for play-makers up front. The best solution to that issue? Playing Missouri! Okay, that was mean, but Indiana dialed up the aggressiveness to great effect last Saturday, and I'm curious to see both how Mizzou's O-line responds and the Gamecocks try to attack. We've got a bit of a "resistible force vs. movable object" battle going here, though it does bear mentioning that Mizzou's O-line has only been bad once (I would say it's also been average twice and good once), and South Carolina's line has been disappointing for most of the year. Advantage Missouri, I guess? Maybe?

Kaiwan Lewis (6'0, 228, Jr.) (9.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry)
T.J. Holloman (6'2, 234, So.) (10.5 tackles, 1 QB hurry)
Marcquis Roberts (6'1, 216, So.) (3.0 tackles, 1 PBU)

Skai Moore (6'2, 213, So.) (22.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry)
Jonathan Walton (6'0, 228, So.) (6.5 tackles, 1 QB hurry)
Bryson Allen-Williams (6'1, 231, Fr.) (4.0 tackles, 1 FR, 2 QB hurries)

Gamecock linebackers haven't been very disruptive either, but I think that has quite a bit to do with the help it's not getting from the line. I really like Kaiwan Lewis and Skai Moore, and as you see above, freshman Bryson Allen-Williams seems like he's pretty close to turning into a play-maker. Hopefully this unit doesn't put the pieces together until after Saturday.

Sharrod Golightly (5'10, 187, Sr.) (11.0 tackles, 1 INT)
Jordan Diggs (6'0, 217, So.) (9.5 tackles)
Larenz Bryant (6'0, 220, So.)

Al Harris Jr. (5'11, 162, Fr.) (8.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU)
Chris Lammons (5'10, 172, Fr.) (1.0 tackles)
Sidney Rhodes (5'10, 182, Sr.) (0.5 tackles)

T.J. Gurley (5'10, 194, Jr.) (21.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
Chaz Elder (6'2, 195, So.) (9.0 tackles)
Jasper Sasser (6'0, 2013, RSFr.)

Brison Williams (5'11, 208, Sr.) (14.5 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
Chris Moody (6'1, 210, So.) (11.5 tackles)
Kadetrix Marcus (6'1, 194, Sr.) (3.0 tackles)

Rico McWilliams (5'11, 184, So.) (15.5 tackles, 1 TFL)
D.J. Smith (5'11, 189, Fr.) (1.5 tackles)

It's the same story with the safeties. I like Brison Williams and T.J. Gurley -- with minimal help, I think they can perform at a pretty high level. The same goes for SPUR LB/safety Sharrod Golightly. But wow, those cornerbacks are young. Like, one-year-of-combined-experience-on-the-first-and-second-string young. Al Harris Jr. is showing promise, but experience does matter, and for most of the game Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt will be guarded by players two to four years younger than them. Hopefully that's a plus.

I thought cornerback would be an issue when I wrote this summer's SBN South Carolina preview.

The Threat of Clowney helped get into opponents' head on passing downs, so even if South Carolina's sack rates were only good and not great (especially on passing downs), you knew opposing quarterbacks were hearing footsteps, real or imaginary. His loss will certainly hurt in that regard. But the secondary also made plenty of plays with or without Clowney's help, to the extent that opponents leaned heavily on the ground game to find success.

That the secondary was so successful and underrated in 2013 is both a good and a bad thing right now. South Carolina might have the best safety tandem in the East, but last year's top three cornerbacks are all gone. Again, there are a lot of exciting prospects to throw at this problem, including four exciting true freshmen. Plus, while Brison Williams is listed as a safety above, he has corner experience and will likely be a starter, albeit a beefy, 208-pound starter. If one of the freshmen thrives, then there will be enough experience around him to account for his random mistakes. But there's no question that it's hard to see the pass defense as a whole working out quite as well without Legree, Hampton, and Clowney's footsteps.

I assumed Brison Williams would end up at CB and provide some experience there. That didn't happen, and now the 'Cocks are at a strange place -- three experienced starting safeties and an incredibly green rotation of corners.

We know what a good South Carolina defense looks like: physical, mean, fast, hard-hitting, etc. There are still plenty of glimpses of those characteristics, but in terms of pure disruptive ability, the Gamecocks have lacked severely in September. Hopefully Mizzou's offensive line rebounds well, and we're saying the same things about this defense after Saturday.

Special Teams

Elliott Fry (6'0, 165, So.) (18-18 PAT, 4-4 FGs under 40, 3-4 FGs over 40)
Landon Ard (5'9, 178, Jr. (27 kickoffs, 59.0 average, 41% touchback rate)

Tyler Hull (6'2, 207, Sr.) (10 punts, 43.1 average, 4 fair caught, 4 inside 20)

Shon Carson (5'8, 201, Jr.) (14 KR, 21.4 average)

Pharoh Cooper (5'11, 201, So.) (3 PR, 2.0 average)

Special teams have been a Spurrier weakness for a while. As I wrote in this year's SBN South Carolina preview...x

Over the last five years, South Carolina has ranked 94th, 75th, 112th, 86th, and 114th, respectively, in Special Teams F/+. It has been a consistent problem for Spurrier and the Gamecocks, and while their overall field position numbers were still pretty decent, they could have been so much better with competent special teams.

Elliott Fry was a solid place-kicker, especially for a freshman, and Tyler Hull's punting was a strength. But kickoffs were an issue, and returns were almost non-existent. Pharoh Cooper came in with a big return-man reputation, but he'll either need to start backing that up or cede that role to somebody else. (That, or his blocking needs to improve drastically.)

South Carolina has too many issues to be a serious national title contender, but strong special teams can cover some issues up. Awful special teams just exacerbate them.

Thus far, Fry has again been a strong kicker, and Tyler Hull's punting has been quite good. And the returns have been abysmal. Again, hopefully we're still saying that after Saturday. (And hopefully we're saying that after quite a few Mizzou kickoffs.)