How great is this defense?
The Tiger defense has allowed 23.1 points per game and is allowing teams to gain a meager 326.4 yards per game up to this point. The fans have certainly taken notice, but what do Baker and his players think of the improved defensive unit?
“I can go all the way back to the K-State game, something I’ve been really proud and surprised by is that these guys don’t flinch,” Defensive Coordinator Blake Baker said. “What’s been really cool to see is their trust in each other this season. They’ve built that all season.”
Baker said that his coaching this year has been a by-product of everything he’s learned over his years as a coordinator.
“I had to learn that, maybe I’m asking them something they aren’t great at doing,” Baker said. “You’ve gotta be able to change what you do and not just beat your head on a wall until it works.”
Many players attribute the scheme to the unit’s superior play.
“Every move a team makes, we have a response,” Realus George said. “It allows us to be really free, and we already know what is coming with certain formations. The scout periods in practice do a really good job.”
The sentiment is shared throughout the defense.
“The system is very straightforward, so I’ve had confidence and been able to go out every Saturday and be myself,” Darius Robinson said.
The scheme has developed as the season has gone on, but the true change in this defense’s play came after the Abilene Christian game.
“From that week, it was a come to Jesus moment,” Baker said. “We weren’t playing how we should’ve been.”
The only thing Baker hasn’t been satisfied with: the number of sacks. However, he says teams have schemed around it more than the defense has actually struggled to get to the passer.
“Our sack numbers haven’t been what we are accustomed to in this scheme, but it’s more due to the style of offenses we play,” Baker said. “That Vanderbilt quarterback, he had a great internal clock to where he knew he wasn’t going to get sacked.”
Some of last year’s starters have noticed a major difference between this year’s unit and last year, both on and off the field.
“We are just all closer as a brotherhood,” Kris Abrams-Draine said. “We do things off the field with each other; we’ve just got a connection.”
Is there anything this defense can do better? According to George, there’s definitely one thing.
“Probably get some more points. That’s what we’ve been trying to do recently.”
What went wrong - and right - in the Vanderbilt game
The defense pitched a first half shutout against the Commodores and only allowed seven points in the entire game. Still, there are things to fix.
“Poor angles, It should’ve been a 7-yard reception,” Bakers said regarding the explosive touchdown Vandy had late in the game. “It’s Football 101.”
Outside of that play, Vandy’s receivers were largely kept in check, something Baker keyed in on the week prior.
“We put those two guys on an island all night long,” Baker said of Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw, Jr. “You look back at #14’s production this season, you look at what he had against us. People hadn’t done that to him all year. We put all our trust in those guys.”
However, perhaps the biggest play of the game was the defense’s fourth-and-1 stop to clinch the game.
“We just played base defense,” Baker said. “That’s a credit to D-Rob, he disengaged and Chad Bailey helped him. I felt good about our 1-on-1 matchups. I didn’t wanna see us get caught out in a blitz.”
Darius Robinson was a big reason (literally) that the defense got that stop.
“I just executed my job, going vertical in the B-gap,” Robinson said. “I did exactly what I do in practice, that was just my gameday moment. Definitely a dream moment for a defensive tackle.”
Kris Abrams-Draine’s stellar season
Abrams-Draine has risen up draft boards this season in thanks to his on-field production, but it is his personality that many credit his success to.
“He doesn’t let the emotions get to him,” Baker said. “He’s a cool cat, nothing much rattles him.”
Baker also went on to scout his star defensive back.
“He’s long, he’s fast, he’s got really good balance,” Baker said. “One thing that stands out to me is his balance. His ability to time up his jumps is great. He’s what you want in a corner, got a short memory too.”
With his success has come more national attention, but Abrams-Draine isn’t concerned about any of that.
“I just look forward to performing each week, and I just keep my head where my feet is,” Abrams-Draine said.
Abrams-Draine says he has looked at some of the draft projections a little bit, but he’s really going to wait until the end of the season to start getting into all of that.
Al Pogue came in as a new defensive backs coach for the Tigers this year, and Abrams-Draine credits him for a lot of his improved play.
“He helped me a lot with the little details,” Abrams-Draine said. “I was just doing things off of athleticism, but he showed me a lot of the technique stuff. He’s gonna be loud, he’s got the most energy in the room. We feed off him.”
Abrams-Draine, and Ennis Rakestraw as well, have played a pivotal role in some of the other DBs’ development.
“They both helped me out with watching film and my technique in practice,” Dreyden Norwood said. “We usually watch receiver tendencies and how they release and such.”
Gamecocks are a hot commodity
South Carolina is in the midst of a 4-game winning streak after starting the season at 1-2. Mizzou has taken notice, and knows that the Gamecocks present some unique challenges.
“They present a lot of problems from a formation and motion standpoint,” Baker said. “You can see he’s gotten comfortable with the offense (Spencer Rattler). Their running backs, they all compliment each other, but #1 (MarShawn Lloyd) is probably their best all-around back. Their receivers are big and can run. They really don’t have any weaknesses on the offense.”
Another major threat for their offense is Oklahoma transfer and tight end Austin Stogner, who led the team with 46 yards against TAMU.
“He’s a complete tight end in the run game, it’s very hard nowadays to find a complete tight end in all facets,” Baker said. “He can make the tight catches and also get up on the jump balls, so we’ve just go to know where he’s at all times.”
Fellow Oklahoma transfer Spencer Rattler was another major transfer pickup for the Gamecocks this offseason, and after a rough start, he’s appeared to settle in.
“He looked like he was feeling his way through the offense, now he’s a lot more like the young man from Georgia (Stetson Bennett),” Baker said of Rattler. “He’s now checking plays, checking runs at the line.”
Side Note: Blake Baker said, if he had to take anybody as his first pick for a fight, he’s taking defensive lineman DJ Coleman easily.