Soon after Ellis Johnson was named South Carolina's defensive coordinator in January, he sensed something was irregular with the Gamecock defense.
The problem? There were too many defensive linemen on the roster. Eleven to be exact, a number that will swell to 16 this summer when the news signees arrive on campus.
But, in today's era of scholarship limitations when quality linemen on either side of the ball are precious commodities, it's a luxury he can live with.
"I never thought I'll say this, but this football program is almost too heavy with defensive linemen," Johnson said. "I don't think I've ever said that in my life. You can't find those guys, but somehow they've found them. They've done a tremendous job recruiting that position the last few years. We have some extremely talented and mobile defensive lineman."
After eight years as a SEC defensive coordinator at Alabama (1997-2000) and Mississippi State (2004-2007), Johnson, a native of Winnsboro, S.C., began his first spring practice with USC last Friday.
Johnson acknowledged the overall scheme he's brought to Columbia isn't much different than the one favored by former defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix for the past two years.
"Everybody runs zone pressure, everybody blitzes, everybody plays underfronts and overfronts and that stuff, but when you change the name of it, it's different for them," Johnson said. "It takes the players a little while to learn it. We have to chase them around the field to make sure they do things. We have to be careful how much we put in this spring."
Johnson guides a defense that led the SEC in pass defense (168.8 ypg) last year behind a strong secondary, but finished last in rushing defense (209.3 ypg) and was the only team to surrender more than 200 yards on the ground per game.
Overall, Johnson is impressed with the quality of talent available to USC on defense this season.
"We have a lot of big, strong, fast and talented football players," Johnson said. "Some of them are a little bit better with the stopwatches than they are with football, and a couple of them are a little bit heavy and need to drop some weight, but it's a young and talented group. As soon as they develop the maturity, the mentality and the toughness it takes to play in (the SEC), I think we have a chance to be pretty good."
Spring is the time to experiment, and Johnson has taken full advantage of the opportunity.
Possibly the most far-reaching decision of the spring was made last week when Johnson shifted Eric Norwood, USC's most productive defensive linemen last season, to weakside linebacker.
Cliff Matthews, who started the final nine games last season at outside linebacker, returned to defensive end to take better advantage of his size (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) and speed in harassing opposing quarterbacks.
"We thought Eric was the more versatile player and Cliff was not using his abilities to the fullest extent, which is the pass rush," Johnson said. "He was playing out in space to much. Eric has done a little more of that. As the scheme progresses, Eric is going to become more and more of an outside linebacker on the line of scrimmage as opposed to a linebacker dropping."
So far, Johnson said, the move has paid off handsomely for both players.
"It's been a great move for Cliff," Johnson said. "Cliff has shown up real big on the practice film. Eric is one of the smartest kids I've been around. He picks things up extremely fast. I don't know if I've coached a player with his physical size that has the versatility he has. They did a good job in designing a package for Cliff and Eric (last season), and that's where we're headed."
With Norwood still new to the position, Jasper Brinkley limited to non-contact drills as he continues his rehab from torn knee ligaments and Marvin Sapp recovering from hernia surgery, the linebacker position is undergoing a period of fluctuation.
"At linebacker, there are not a lot of proven bodies," Johnson said. "There's some guys with some athleticism that are a little bit young. There are also guys that played in a different scheme. We have to get them in the right place."
Redshirt freshman Alonzo Winfield, the fastest linebacker on the roster, is battling with Gerrod Sinclair for top honors at strongside linebacker.
Brinkley and Sapp combined to start all 12 games at middle linebacker last season, but that position was primarily manned by sophomore Melvin Ingram (6-2, 269 pounds) and junior Rodney Paulk (6-0, 226 pounds) in the first two practices.
Johnson is hoping Paulk will be able to play either middle and weakside linebacker this season.
Johnson knows nursing Brinkley's knee back to full strength is one of the keys to success in the 2008 season.
"Not only is he a great player, but he bring some maturity, poise and leadership," Johnson said. "You can see from last season when they lost Jasper that it was a steady decline in some of the areas such as run-stopping. You take him out of the middle, and you have a lot of leadership missing."
Brinkley will continue to avoid contact this spring in order to ensure he's healthy for the fall.
"He can do anything we wanted him to do this spring, but we're going to try to be smart and make sure we don't put him in any physical stuff that could likely re-injure the knee," Johnson said.
Johnson's dilemma, as he sees it, is finding a way to "tweak the scheme" to make sure Norwood, Brinkley, Ingram and Matthews are on the field at the same time this season.
"Somehow, those guys have to be on the field at the same time in normal situations," Johnson said. "That's where Eric's versatility is going to allow us to do that. He has natural pass rush skills with a really good knowledge of perimeter play, adjustments and zone drops."
Brinkley weighs 275 pounds, according to USC's official spring roster, but Johnson foresees no problem for him playing at that weight considering the senior has little body fat.
"He has about five to seven percent body fat," Johnson said. "He might not be able to play 65 or 70 snaps, but as far as his ability to change directions and playing fundamentally strong, I don't think it's affected him."
Ingram, however, must shed some pounds in order to improve his quickness and mobility and become a more effective player, Johnson insisted. If he does, he'll be a really "fine player," he said.
Winfield (6-0, 218 pounds), a redshirt freshman, and true freshman Shaq Wilson (5-11, 194 pounds), who enrolled early at USC to participate in spring practice, have been pleasant surprises. Winfield ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash during winter testing.
"Winfield has tremendous athleticism," Johnson said. "Shaq Wilson is a very natural player. He moves into good football position. He can change direction and knows how to use his hands. He has good footwork. I haven't seen any of these young players with pads yet, so I don't know who can finish the deal."
While asserting Wilson is "a very undersized SEC linebacker," Johnson says he could become a 'situational' player this fall when the scheme calls for the outside linebacker to act like a strong safety.
The secondary has also been hard hit with injuries and suspensions this spring. Captain Munnerlyn, USC's top cornerback, has spent the first two practices watching from the sidelines as he recovers from a micro-fracture in his foot.
Carlos Thomas has yet to step onto the field because of an indefinite suspension imposed by head coach Steve Spurrier for bad behavior.
With USC's top two cornerbacks out and a third, Stoney Woodson, sidelined with a hamstring injury sustained in Friday's opening workout, the coaches had a find a way to replenish the position.
So, they made the decision to shift sophomore Chris Culliver to the defensive side of the ball after he spent his first season of major college football as a wide receiver.
That move allowed them to move a safety or two over to cornerback. Thomas is expected to be reinstated to the team this week, so his presence will help the depth.
Right now, young players such as Akeem Auguste, Addison Williams, Jamire Williams and Antonio Allen have received plenty of practice reps.
"Some of them really need that attention," Johnson said. "Our secondary, other than about three guys, is a very young group."
Culliver will start out at safety, a position that features strong safety Emmanuel Cook and free safety Darian Stewart, two of the most productive players on the entire Gamecock defense.
"We have more numbers right now at the wide receiver position. I think he saw that," Johnson said. "We need the numbers at the defensive back position. We're thin back there and we have several guys out injured like Captain Munnerlyn. It's good for us to get another fresh body at defensive back. Getting a guy like Culliver over there, we can shuffle it around and get some more bodies over to corner."
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