Spurrier, South Carolina seeking improved defense
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina got started on spring workouts Tuesday, looking to shore up a defense that fell terribly short of expectations a year ago.
The drop off from the Gamecocks' three previous 11-2 seasons between 2011 and 2013 was so severe, coach Steve Spurrier called on good friend Jon Hoke to straighten things out as South Carolina's co-defensive coordinator alongside longtime group leader Lorenzo Ward.
Hoke and Ward said Tuesday that the six weeks or so they shared a title has gone smoothly.
''He fits in everywhere because he's a good person, good guy,'' Spurrier said. ''He's been around a lot of really sharp coaches and I think he's a sharp coach.''
''But,'' Spurrier followed, ''he's got a lot of work to do.''
The Gamecocks were one of the best defenses in the Southeastern Conference those three seasons from 2011-13. They ranked second behind Alabama in scoring defense and fifth in overall yards in 2013, giving up 350 yards a game.
Those squads were anchored by first-round draft picks in cornerback Stephon Gilmore of Buffalo and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick by the Houston Texans last spring.
With such standouts gone, South Carolina could not keep things going on the defensive side. It slid to 13th out of 14 in SEC overall defense, allowing 80 more yards a game.
Worse, yet, were the fourth-quarterback collapses where the Gamecocks gave up double-digit, fourth-quarter leads to lose games to Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Hoke is taking things step by step. He's putting in South Carolina's base 4-3 in early drills, ensuring his guys master that before getting more complex.
''I want to set that foundation,'' Hoke said.
Linebacker Skai Moore, the team's top tackler the past two years, said Hoke and Ward have blended well. The players, he said, have stepped up their attitudes.
''It's more of a sense of urgency, everyone has to be running,'' said Moore, who'll be a junior next fall. ''It's high intensity.''
Along with Hoke, the Gamecocks brought in several potential playmakers on that side of the ball, including linebacker Marquavius Lewis and defensive lineman Dexter Wideman. Lewis was active during team drills. Wideman, though, will have to wait on his South Carolina practice debut because he had academic work to catch up on, Spurrier said.
Spurrier and Ward, the other defensive coordinator, expected Wideman back on the field later this week.
Adding Hoke was an easy call for Spurrier. Hoke led Spurrier's defense at Florida from 1999-2001 and was among the head ball coach's initial calls when he returned to college football at South Carolina after the 2004 season.
Hoke was in the midst of his time as an NFL assistant then. He's spent the past 13 years with coaching defensive backs with the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears.
Returning to college wasn't much of a transition at all, Hoke said after workouts. He found the players eager to learn and more than ready to wipe away last year's performance when the Gamecocks finished 7-6.
''We're trying to get everyone to play fast and physical,'' he said. ''When they don't think they have an opportunity to play fast and physical. That's what it's going to be about.''