COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense, isn’t necessarily trying to temper expectations for Jadeveon Clowney when he arrives this summer.
After all, Johnson recruited him and knows the caliber of athlete the Gamecocks are getting in the country’s top-rated overall prospect.
But what are realistic expectations for the 6-foot-6, 252-pound Clowney in his first season?
“I think it’s realistic for him to come in and be a starter, but I think it’s also realistic not to assume that,” Johnson said. “But once a kid gets the kind of attention and hype he did in the national media and all the recruiting services, he can never do as much as everybody expects him to. So I won’t even go there.
“But, physically, he could have put on a football uniform for the Carolina Panthers last year and played three games, and nobody would have known that he shouldn’t have been in there. That kid is physically ready to go, but there’s a difference in this league and high school. There are going to be some things he doesn’t do well.”
Other than his freakish athletic ability, the other thing about Clowney that jumped out to Johnson was how hard he played.
“There are a lot of big, tall, physical and fast kids in high school, and they don’t play like he did because they don’t have to,” Johnson said. “Jadeveon played like a reckless train.”
Big spring for Cann: It’s been a rarity under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina to see the same offensive line coach back for a second year in a row, but Shawn Elliott is going through his second spring.
The Gamecocks played much more consistently up front under Elliott last season and proved that they could run the ball in big games -- Florida and Georgia.
Elliott has a couple of holes to fill this spring and feels like redshirt freshman A.J. Cann may be the key to how everything comes together.
“If he can come in and we can insert him at one of those guard positions, then I think we’ve got something going,” Elliott said. “If he can’t step it up a notch, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board, but I think he’s going to do a good job this spring. He’s as physical looking a character as you ever want to see up front. He’s 6-3 and 310 pounds. I’m going to put the pressure on him to be that guy.”
The other thing Elliott plans to do this spring is see if senior Rokevious Watkins can move over from guard and be the Gamecocks’ starting right tackle.
“Watkins has changed his attitude,” Elliott said. “He wasn’t out of shape a year ago, but was a heavier guy. He’s leaned up and starting to do the right things. He’s in the weight room when he’s not supposed to be in there. He’s starting to do a little more than what’s expected of him. We’re going to experiment with him at right tackle because he’s so fluid. He could really be a strong right tackle and solidify us.”
Senior Kyle Nunn returns at left tackle and junior T.J. Johnson at center. Senior Terrence Campbell is the favorite to win the other guard spot.
“Terrence is a big, strong guy who filled in at guard in the bowl game,” Elliott said. “I’ve got to see if he can play in a full-time role.”
On the move: It looks like Damario Jeffery is at weakside linebacker to stay, and Johnson would also like to keep DeVonte Holloman at the Spur hybrid position, which is part linebacker, part safety.
Holloman, who played safety last season, is pushing 230 pounds right now and has the frame to play at 240-plus, according to Johnson.
“I think he could play inside at linebacker, but he’s so athletic and moves so well that Spur is the best place for him,” Johnson said.
Senior Antonio Allen is the returning starter at Spur, but was inconsistent last season.
One of the keys in leaving Holloman at Spur will be somebody coming on at safety opposite D.J. Swearinger. Sophomore Corey Addison is working with the starters right now, but Johnson said redshirt freshman Sharrod Golightly, redshirt freshman Cadarious Sanders, true freshman Brison Williams and true freshman Martay Mattox would also get a chance.
“Somebody will have to step up and win that job, or we’ll have to move DeVonte back to safety,” Johnson said.
Linebacker experience: The Gamecocks will have veteran linebackers Shaq Wilson and Rodney Paulk back on the field together next season.
Wilson only played in one game last season because of a hamstring injury, and Paulk has been plagued by knee injuries. Paulk is being held out of spring drills, but plans on playing next season without his knee brace.
“Having their experience back on the field together should make a big difference for us,” Johnson said. “Paulk really wasn’t back to himself with that knee brace, and we lost a lot of leadership, a lot of knowledge and a lot of glue without Shaq Wilson.”
The Gamecocks will also limit what Wilson does this spring. He was their leading tackler during the 2009 season.
Another guy Johnson has been pleased with at linebacker is Quin Smith.
“He played a heck of a game in the bowl game and is really starting to make that transition from defensive back to linebacker,” Johnson said. “He’s getting better mentally, and his knowledge is better. He’s always been a tough kid.”
Defending Gilmore: Johnson said junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore had a lot better season a year ago than most people are giving him credit for.
The Gamecocks struggled in general defending the pass, and Johnson also pointed out that the defensive backs weren’t always the ones to blame.
“One of the things that did happen back there is that we had some inexcusable mental breakdowns,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we’ve got to get better. I’m determined that we will get better. Having said that, all of our problems with pass defense was not pass coverage. There were lots of times when we weren’t getting to the quarterback in time. Every coverage has a half-life. You can’t play coverage every play for five seconds against a good quarterback.”
Johnson said there were a couple of obvious situations where Gilmore had breakdowns and was beaten badly and that those plays are what a lot of people have focused on because he was such a phenomenon as a true freshman.
“Stephon, I think, will have a great year,” Johnson said. “He had a better year than people thought he did. He had a couple of mistakes, but he had a better sophomore year than he did a freshman year. But because he came in and was a freshman sensation, everything he did well that year, everybody hyped it up. Everything he did wrong, everybody excused it.
“His sophomore year, he was a better player, but nobody wanted to excuse any of his mistakes.”
The Gamecocks are moving senior Akeem Auguste back to cornerback from safety, where he didn't play as well last season. Johnson thinks Auguste is better as a cornerback. Johnson said the Gamecocks' third cornerback, C.C. Whitlock, also needs to be more consistent.
"He'll make some big plays for you, but he also had a lot of bad plays," Johnson said. "There’s a level of inconsistency back there across the board that we’re going to address and put a lot more focus on it, and hopefully, some of the personnel coming in will address it."