NCF Nation: Chaz Sutton

Steve Spurrier doesn't have to be reminded of how tough it can be to play in Fayetteville, Ark. Spurrier has lost three straight games, all by double digits, on the road to the Razorbacks. Since taking over as South Carolina's head coach in 2005, he's won there just once -- his first time.

"They've outplayed us every time we've been out there since '05," Spurrier said. "Well, they actually outplayed us that day, but somehow or another we squirmed around and beat them 14-10."

That was the last time South Carolina even beat Arkansas in back-to-back games, so you can understand if the Head Ball Coach has some apprehension about this road trip. Forget that the Hogs are stumbling into this meeting with three straight losses, Saturday's game will be a physical bout that should leave both the winner and loser battered and bruised.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTurnovers and mistakes have been a problem for Connor Shaw and South Carolina on the road this season.
For No. 14 South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 SEC), this is a crucial matchup with the Hogs (3-3, 0-2 SEC). With as wacky as the SEC East has been this year, the Gamecocks know they can't afford to stumble now if they want to get to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. Not with Georgia limping around with injuries, Florida's offense still in question and Missouri attempting to make a run.

"The pressure is off of us," quarterback Connor Shaw said. "Of course it's going to be in the back of our minds that we're going to be hoping that there's gonna be a slip-up and we're gonna find our way in Atlanta, kinda like Georgia has the past two years."

Shaw is right about the pressure: That is firmly on Georgia. But that doesn't downplay Saturday's significance. The SEC East's round-robin is about to begin, as Missouri travels to Georgia this weekend before hosting Florida. The Gators then have Georgia and South Carolina remaining, and the Gamecocks travel to Mizzou in three weeks.

"It's very important that we go and get this win on the road because we still have a lot of our goals out there that we still want to accomplish and this game is in front of them," defensive end Chaz Sutton said.

It won't be easy. The Razorbacks sport one of the SEC's best running games, averaging 216 yards a contest and 5.1 yards per carry. Freshman Alex Collins is having a stellar year, leading the SEC with 651 rushing yards, while sidekick Jonathan Williams is fifth in the SEC with 503 rushing yards.

This rushing duo was stuffed last week against the Gators, totaling just 86 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, but South Carolina doesn't have the run defense Florida has. The Gamecocks are surrendering 62 more rushing yards a game than the Gators and gave up 227 yards on the ground when they faced a quality rushing duo at Georgia.

Sutton knows that South Carolina's key to success on Saturday starts with a defensive front that has had to deal with inexperience and injuries thus far.

"We have to come prepared mentally and physically because we know it's going to be 60 minutes of a downhill run game," Sutton said.

The good news for the Gamecocks is that they can combat Arkansas' running game with their own tank of a back in Mike Davis. He's third in the SEC in rushing (614 yards) and first in touchdowns (eight). Arkansas' rush defense has played decently, so Davis' impact will have to be felt early and often to wear this defense down.

Also expect some fourth-quarter dramatics. While the Razorbacks have struggled in the fourth quarter this season, scoring just 21 points in the final frame, the Gamecocks have relinquished double-digit second-half leads the past three weeks, allowing 58 fourth-quarter points in the process.

Shaw said "careless" turnovers, special-teams blunders and a "lack of focus" have hurt this team. Sutton said it's immaturity with younger players on defense. Regardless, the Gamecocks have to sure that area up if they're going to escape Fayetteville with a win.

"They have to know that they have to play mentally [tough] the whole game," Sutton said. "They can't just back off because we have a 35-7 or whatever sort of lead during the game. You have to play for 60 minutes."

Porous UGA line now must face Clowney

September, 2, 2013
ATHENS, Ga. -- While it might seem odd to criticize an offensive line that helped Georgia generate 545 yards -- on the road in one of the louder stadiums the Bulldogs will visit this season, no less -- it is clear that offensive line coach Will Friend has not settled on a lineup that he loves after Saturday’s 38-35 loss to Clemson.

With Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina’s fearsome defensive front on deck Saturday, that is not a particularly encouraging sign for the Bulldogs. But Georgia’s linemen realize they can’t allow themselves to think that way.

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Gerry Melendez/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney was unimpressive against North Carolina, but he has starred against Georgia.
“If you take that aspect of it, then you’re just going to psyche yourself out,” said offensive tackle Kolton Houston, who started his first college game at right tackle on Saturday. “You’ve got to give him credit. I mean Clowney’s definitely one of the best players there is, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to treat it like any other guy.”

Such a philosophy might not be particularly useful for Georgia’s coaching staff, which knows it must frequently commit more than one blocker to Clowney -- a player widely viewed as one of the top pro prospects in college football.

Clowney got off to an unimpressive start in last Thursday’s win against North Carolina, but he has made his impression felt in two games against Georgia to date.

As a freshman in 2011, he twice sacked Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray and forced Murray into a fumble that teammate Melvin Ingram recovered for the win-clinching touchdown late in a 45-42 South Carolina victory. Last season, Clowney had two tackles for a loss and a sack as the Gamecocks harassed Murray into the lowest single-game QBR (8.4, when his season average was 78.2, 13th-best in the nation) of his college career.

“Whatever happened last year is last year,” said Georgia’s Kenarious Gates, who struggled mightily against Clowney a season ago. “The thing about me is I learned to move on and focus on what’s ahead of me.”

What’s ahead is a chance for redemption, not just for Gates, but for an entire offensive line that turned in an embarrassing effort in last season’s 35-7 loss to the Gamecocks. But it’s unclear who will line up on the edge to defend against Clowney, Chaz Sutton and South Carolina’s other pass rushers.

Friend experimented with several lineups in Saturday’s opener, to mixed results at best. While Georgia generated more first downs, rushing yards and passing yards, averaged more yards per play and led in time of possession, the line also committed a handful of costly penalties and surrendered four sacks -- more than in any game last year except one, when they allowed five to Ole Miss.

Three of those sacks came in the second quarter, when Clemson’s defense put the clamps on a Georgia offense that moved the ball at will early in the game. Tigers defensive end Vic Beasley zipped around flailing left tackle Gates on one third-down rush to nearly decapitate Murray with a vicious blind-side blow that forced a punt.

On Georgia’s next possession, Stephone Anthony got around right tackle Houston and knocked the ball away from Murray at the Bulldogs’ 20-yard line, forcing a fumble that Clemson’s Spencer Shuey recovered at the 16 to set up a short touchdown drive.

And on the final possession of the first half, Tavaris Barnes blew past Houston -- now playing left tackle -- to take down Murray near midfield and short-circuit Georgia’s attempt to drive for the go-ahead points just before halftime.

Clemson added one more sack on Georgia’s first possession of the second half and the Bulldogs otherwise kept Murray upright. Some key damage had already been done, however, and Georgia’s offense never regained its early momentum.

“We definitely had our ups and downs, but at the end of the day it’s a loss and Aaron got his jersey dirty,” Houston said.

Gates lost weight in the offseason, partially out of a desire to be quicker on his feet so he could more easily contend with speed rushers like Beasley and Clowney.

“I felt like that would make me a better player -- lighter on my feet and quicker and it’s lighter on my knees, as well,” Gates said last week. “I feel like doing it for me, doing it for the team, it would make me a more athletic player. I want to be that guy, and overall it’s been helpful.”

Clowney presents the biggest challenge of the season for Georgia’s pass protectors, though, and it seems unlikely that Friend and Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will make one player responsible for the Gamecocks star. Count on Georgia to devote tight ends and running backs to Clowney’s side, as well, to assist the tackles against the player who totaled 23.5 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks a season ago.

And as Bulldogs coach Mark Richt pointed out, the Bulldogs will also enjoy the benefit of playing at home, unlike in Saturday’s loss. Georgia relied on silent snap counts because of the noise present in Death Valley, but the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium will allow the Bulldogs to vary their cadences and prevent Clowney and company from jumping the snap count so easily.

“I think the times we got beat in my opinion, we just got beat off the snap,” Richt said. “We’ll have our cadence next week and that will help. If we were at South Carolina, it would be a little bit tougher, but I think it will help when we get off on the cadence.”

What to watch in the ACC: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
The moment is finally here. The season kicks off tonight, as two ACC teams take the gridiron and mark the return of college football. Here is what to keep an eye on this entire weekend as all 14 teams get back in action.

1. Battle in the trenches in Columbia, S.C. North Carolina will have three new starters on its offensive line Thursday night against No. 6 South Carolina, including two redshirt freshmen. And the Tar Heels will be going up against preseason Heisman contender Jadeveon Clowney and the Gamecocks' lethal defensive line. Don't overlook fellow end Chaz Sutton, either.

2. Conference debuts. Pitt and Syracuse play their first games as ACC schools after exiting the former Big East, which the Orange won a four-way share of in 2012. Both schools have the chance to make big opening statements, as the Panthers host defending conference champion Florida State on Labor Day and Syracuse faces a Penn State squad looking to build off Bill O'Brien's successful first year with the program.

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John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesBoston College's Steve Addazio is one of the conference's new coaches this season.
3. Trio of first-year coaches. New BC coach Steve Addazio hosts Villanova, a familiar opponent from his Temple days. Dave Doeren and NC State host Louisiana Tech, which breaks in a new coach of its own in Skip Holtz after Sonny Dykes left for Cal following a 9-3 season. And Syracuse coach Scott Shafer debuts against Penn State in East Rutherford, N.J.

4. QB choices in Jersey and Raleigh. Two of those new coaches also will be unveiling their starting quarterback choices for the first time, as Shafer sends out either Terrel Hunt or Drew Allen and Doeren picks Pete Thomas or Brandon Mitchell. The Orange will be facing a Penn State team that carries the same surprise in its quarterback race between Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson.

5. ... Speaking of new starting QBs. Virginia's David Watford will make his first career start against BYU, Duke's Anthony Boone takes over the job from Sean Renfree against NC Central, and Florida State and Pitt will both start new signal-callers when they square off on Labor Day, with Jameis Winston running the Seminoles' offense and Tom Savage handling duties for the Panthers.

6. Pitt's running backs. Ray Graham is gone. Rushel Shell transferred to West Virginia. And Isaac Bennett and James Conner have dealt with injuries in camp. Coach Paul Chryst isn't sure how things will shake out Monday, but we likely will see Rachid Ibrahim and Malcolm Crockett get at least some action given the backfield situation.

7. FSU's defensive backs. Are too many bodies a good thing? Nick Waisome and Terrence Brooks started all 14 games last season for the nation's No. 1 pass defense. The crowd also includes preseason All-American Lamarcus Joyner, reigning ACC defensive rookie of the year Ronald Darby, former five-star prospect Karlos Williams and several other strong athletes. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has his work cut out for him, although probably not as much as new Pitt quarterback Tom Savage does.

8. Virginia Tech's backfield. Coach Frank Beamer wasn't kidding when he said the Hokies went from having too many running backs to not enough. Michael Holmes was kicked off the team in July, Joel Caleb was suspended this month for the opener against Alabama, Tony Gregory suffered a career-ending ACL tear and J.C. Coleman's status for Saturday is up in the air because of two ankle sprains. Redshirt freshmen Trey Edmunds and Chris Mangus are the Hokies' next options after Coleman.

9. "Smoke." Taquan Mizzell has earned that nickname despite having never taken the college field. ESPN's No. 9 running back prospect from the class of 2013 has drawn plenty of buzz in Virginia's camp, and he will get a stiff first test against BYU's defense.

10. ACC vs. SEC. What, you really thought we'd forget this one? Three ACC teams face off against squads from the big, bad SEC, perhaps none with as steep a challenge as Virginia Tech's against Alabama. UNC kicks things off Thursday at South Carolina, and No. 8 Clemson hosts No. 5 Georgia on Saturday night in the headliner of Week 1. The ACC went 1-1 against the SEC in last year's weekend openers, with NC State falling to Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff the night before Clemson topped Auburn in the Georgia Dome.

Breaking out of Clowney's shadow

August, 27, 2013
One of the first mistakes a team can make with Jadeveon Clowney is trying to block him one-on-one without any help.

The second mistake is thinking that he’s a force of one on South Carolina’s defensive line.

Jim Dedmon/Icon SMIKelcy Quarles is out to show that there is more to the South Carolina defense than just Jadeveon Clowney.
“A lot of people around the country know about Jadeveon Clowney, but they’re going to find out that there’s a lot more to our defensive line this season than just one guy,” said junior Kelcy Quarles, one of the interior anchors of a talent-laden South Carolina defensive line.

Sure, No. 7 is the guy who makes it all go, but there’s going to be a race to get to the opposing quarterback this fall in Columbia, and that mad dash starts Thursday night when North Carolina visits Williams-Brice Stadium.

“I love playing beside Clowney and love the way he opens up things for everybody else,” Quarles said. “He’s like a brother, but there are a lot of guys on this defensive line who feel like they’re overlooked. All that’s going to do is give us more fuel to go out there and show what we can do.

“We’ll push each other to see who can get back there the fastest. That’s my kind of race.”

Clowney racked up 13 sacks a year ago to finish second in the SEC. There’s no telling how high he could go this season, and if teams sell out to stop him, senior end Chaz Sutton is sure to make them pay on the other side. And if it’s not Sutton, Quarles and J.T. Surratt make for an imposing duo inside.

The Gamecocks also plan to move Clowney around this season. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward likes his “rabbits” package where Clowney and Sutton shift inside on passing downs with smaller, quicker players manning the end spots. Redshirt freshman Darius English looks to be a natural in that role and is a blur coming off the edge.

“I believe in all those guys,” Clowney said. “I talk to Chaz every day. I tell him that everybody’s going to be looking at me, but that this is his season. It’s the same thing with Kelcy.

“We’re going to be coming every game.”

Ominous words, indeed.

But Clowney has pretty much been unblockable this preseason, and his defensive line mates haven’t been too far behind.

In one of the Gamecocks’ final scrimmages, quarterback Connor Shaw said it was all he could do just to get the shotgun snap.

“I’d catch the snap, and he’d be on top of me in a half-second,” Shaw said. “That’s just how good he is. It’s not like our left tackle (junior Corey Robinson) is bad. Clowney’s just that good. Across the board, we’re strong up front on defense, and that’s just made our offensive line that much better.”

With so much inexperience at linebacker, South Carolina’s defensive line will be counted on to wreak even more havoc than it did a year ago.

Not a problem, said Quarles, who’s bulked up some 20 pounds and plans to play at 305 this season.

He also plans to play his way out of Clowney’s shadow.

“He sets up things for the tackle, but I set up some things for him, too,” said Quarles, who had eight tackles for loss last season. “That’s the way it’s going to be all year. Our mindset is to go out and dominate no matter who’s out there.

“One play, it may be Clowney. The next, it may be me, J.T., Chaz or any of the other guys. They’re going to have a lot more to worry about than just No. 7.”

Ward has reminded Clowney more than once that former South Carolina star defensive end Melvin Ingram (a first-round draft choice in 2012) had most of his sacks when he was lined up inside in the Gamecocks’ “rabbits” package.

“If we put him inside, people will have to figure out how they’re going to block him – one-on-one or are they going to slide their front to him?” Ward said. “It’s easier off the edge because they can have a back chip him or keep a tight end in to get to his side and have one less guy in the route.

“When you keep him inside, he creates more issues.”

Either way, Clowney has a knack for getting to the ball at warp speed, mesmerizing even his teammates.

“They’ll be like, ‘How do you get to the ball so fast?’” Clowney said. “I always tell them, ‘I just have a nose for the ball, know where it’s going to be.’

“It’s like I have a feeling before the play sometimes where it’s going.”

Quarles wouldn’t argue that.

“You can’t really explain it, but I still plan on beating him back there some this year,” Quarles said. “We all do.”
Everyone who knows anything about college football knows that one major thing that separates the SEC from all the other conferences is the play -- and talent -- along the defensive lines.

Ask any coach out there to describe the biggest difference and "defensive line" is bound to be one of the first things that slip out of his mouth. It truly is all about the trenches in the SEC, both defensively and offensively. The offensive lines deserve some love for just putting up with their burly counterparts, but the defensive lines really do get all the attention.

So it should come as no surprise that when Phil Steele ranked his top 15 defensive lines in college football that the SEC was represented by five teams -- the most of any conference.

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJadeveon Clowney headlines a deep crop of SEC defensive linemen.
While none ranked first or second -- that was reserved for Notre Dame (No. 1) and USC (No. 2) -- South Carolina topped the SEC lines at No. 3 on Steele's list. Florida ranked sixth, Ole Miss was 12th, Alabama was 13th and LSU was 14th.

That's pretty good when you consider that Florida lost first-rounder Sharrif Floyd and Mr. Solid Omar Hunter in the middle, while LSU pretty much lost its entire starting defensive line from a year ago.

The SEC truly does just reload up front.

South Carolina's ranking isn't surprising because there's more than just Jadeveon Clowney to work with. Sure, Clowney might be the best player in the country, but he has help from Kelcy Quarles and J.T. Surratt inside and Chaz Sutton on the other side of him. Quarles was pretty consistent for the Gamecocks last year, while Sutton grabbed five sacks as a backup. The departure of starters Devin Taylor and Byron Jerideau shouldn't shake this lineup too much.

Getting Ronald Powell back should help the Gators with Lerentee McCray gone on the outside. Powell will play that hybrid linebacker/defensive end "Buck" position, where he'll get help from freshman All-SEC player Dante Fowler Jr. Dominique Easley is moving back to defensive tackle, where he was very disruptive during his first two years on campus. He can still move outside if needed. End Jonathan Bullard is coming off of a solid freshman season, while more is expected out of tackle Damien Jacobs, who came from the junior college ranks last year.

Ole Miss still has depth issues at defensive tackle, but has plenty to work with at end. C.J. Johnson should be healed from the leg injury he suffered this spring, while Cameron Whigham is coming off of a season in which he started 11 games. Rising sophomore Channing Ward should be fun to watch, and top recruit Robert Nkemdiche is expected to see the field very early. Tackle Issac Gross should be back from his groin injury this fall and he'll get help from juco transfer Lavon Hooks, who had a very good spring.

Alabama might not have the elite players it's had in the past up front, but defensive ends Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson could have big years. Pagan has a lot of potential, while Stinson recorded 30 tackles last season, including 8.5 for loss and three sacks. Stinson is versatile enough to play both inside and out. Then there's Brandon Ivory at noseguard, who has to replace the talented Jesse Williams. Alabama still needs players to step up more as starters and reserves because the line as a whole has a ways to go before the season starts.

You can tell how well Les Miles has recruited along the defensive line when the Tigers can lose so much but still have a line that's considered one of the nation's best. Tackle Anthony Johnson has so much potential and it sounds like he's ready to unleash his talents on the rest of the league. Miles raved about end Jermauria Rasco this spring and doesn't think the Tigers will miss much of a beat with him outside. True freshman Christian LeCouture played his way into the two-deep at defensive tackle this spring, while Miles expects to get more from tackle Ego Ferguson and ends Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen.

Gamecocks winning where it counts

October, 7, 2012

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Connor Shaw could see it in the Georgia players’ eyes on South Carolina’s first touchdown drive.

A few minutes later, it was even more obvious to Marcus Lattimore after the Gamecocks drove it right down the Bulldogs’ throats for their second touchdown in as many possessions.

“They were shell-shocked. We hit them in the mouth, and they weren’t ready for it,” Lattimore said.

Nope, not even close.

But in Georgia’s defense, it’s debatable whether anybody in college football would have been ready for what the Gamecocks unleashed Saturday night on the No. 5 Bulldogs in a 35-7 bludgeoning at Williams-Brice Stadium that sent a clear message about the shifting balance of power in the SEC.

“We definitely sent a message out to the whole country. This is not the old South Carolina. We can play with y’all. We can play with anybody,” said Lattimore, who rushed for 109 yards, his third consecutive 100-yard rushing performance against Georgia.

A year ago, South Carolina scored three non-offensive touchdowns in a wild 45-42 victory over Georgia. Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said after that one that the Gamecocks were fortunate to win.

But there was nothing fluky about Saturday’s game.

The Gamecocks (6-0, 4-0) dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides, a telltale sign of how far this program has come under Spurrier.

Marquee skill players have come and gone through the years at South Carolina, but the Gamecocks haven’t always been able to measure up in the trenches, particularly against the elite teams.

Those days are over.

Not only did South Carolina grind out 230 rushing yards, but the Gamecocks held Georgia to 224 total yards -- the Bulldogs’ lowest output since a 2006 loss to Florida.

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Daniel Shirey/US PresswireSouth Carolina's defensive line harrassed Georgia QB Aaron Murray into an 11-of-31, one-pick night.
“Like I told the guys, we took a whipping,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “But the good news was that we all took it together.”

In other words, the Bulldogs didn’t have any answers on either side of the ball.

“Our offensive line was great,” said Shaw, who threw touchdown passes of 20 and 14 yards on the Gamecocks’ first two drives. “They just keep getting better. They came out and set the tone tonight.”

While South Carolina’s offensive line took its game to another level, Georgia’s offensive line never knew what hit it. The Gamecocks came into the game thinking they could exploit the Bulldogs’ offensive line.

They did more than exploit it. They rendered it helpless, and even when Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray wasn’t being hounded by Jadeveon Clowney or Devin Taylor, he didn’t have much success finding open receivers.

This is a Georgia offense that had scored 40 or more points in each of its first five games and was flirting with 500 yards per game in total offense.

On Saturday, much to the delight of a deafening and record crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium, it was 21-0 in favor of South Carolina, and Georgia had run all of six offensive plays.

“It wasn’t only the front four, but our linebackers played really well … and the perimeter,” said South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, whose defense has yet to give up more than 17 points this season.

“We were in position to make some plays. It’s a blessing to be able to rush four guys and drop seven when it’s time to play football.”

Indeed it is, especially when you have freakish athletes like Clowney coming off the edge and hurdling would-be blockers. He’s not the only one, either.

South Carolina is equally stout on the interior with defensive tackles Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau, while the third end in the rotation, Chaz Sutton, is starting to play some of his best football.

“You can’t block our defensive line,” Shaw said. “I know. We have to go against them every day.”

After watching Georgia’s freshman running back duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall torch Tennessee for three touchdown runs of 51 yards or longer last week, Ward said the Gamecocks were determined not to let the Bulldogs get outside.

As it was, Gurley and Marshall couldn’t find running room anywhere. They were held to 76 rushing yards on 25 carries, and their longest run was a 15-yarder by Gurley.

It only gets tougher from here for South Carolina, which will almost certainly move to No. 3 in the polls with both LSU and Florida State going down on Saturday.

The Gamecocks have to travel to LSU next week and then Florida on Oct. 20 in what could potentially be a huge Eastern Division showdown.

It’s the kind of position this program simply hasn’t been in over the years.

But, then, it’s a program that has the kind of muscle, physicality and explosiveness in the line of scrimmage that it’s never had.

And that’s where you win championships in this league.

“We’ll see where this leads us,” Spurrier said.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- One of the more underrated jobs in the SEC the past two seasons has been the one done by South Carolina assistant head coach for the defense Ellis Johnson and his staff.

The Gamecocks finished 15th nationally in total defense last season and 13th nationally in 2008. Alabama and Florida were the only other two SEC teams to finish in the top-15 each of the past two years.

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AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainSouth Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson got a contract extension and a raise this offseason.
Without question, one of the best moves South Carolina made this offseason was holding onto Johnson, who was offered a lucrative deal by Tennessee coach Derek Dooley to be the Vols’ defensive coordinator.

The Gamecocks acted quickly and extended Johnson’s contract to a four-year deal and increased his annual salary to $700,000.

“We got all that done in a day, and we needed to,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Coach Dooley was coming after him hard.”

Johnson, 58, is one of the straightest shooters in the college game. He’s got that old-school aura about him and doesn’t sugarcoat it for anybody, including his players.

So when he says he doesn’t really have a feel for his defense this spring, he means it.

For one, the Gamecocks have been a MASH unit. Defensive linemen Cliff Matthews and Travian Robertson have been sidelined while recovering from injuries, and defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye has been limited.

Linebackers Rodney Paulk and Reggie Bowens have also been sidelined along with cornerback Chris Culliver.

“It’s good in that we’ve gotten a chance to see a lot of young kids, and that’s what the spring is about,” Johnson said. “But it’s hard to say where we are as a defensive unit right now. That might not be something that comes together until the second week of preseason practice.”

The Gamecocks return seven of 11 starters from last season, but one of the more disappointing things this spring for Johnson is that one of those younger defensive linemen hasn’t jumped out there and been more of a presence.

“With Matthews not being out there, we haven’t gotten any one-on-one pressure on the quarterback,” said Johnson, adding that sophomore end Devin Taylor and redshirt freshman Chaz Sutton still had a ways to go in that department.

Matthews was a second-team All-SEC performer last season and tied the departed Eric Norwood for the team lead in sacks with seven. He's one of the top three or four defensive ends in the league.

“You’ve got to have two of those guys at end, and we haven’t found that other light-the-match guy this spring,” Johnson said.

Johnson said junior Shaq Wilson is the most likely candidate to replace Norwood at outside linebacker, particularly if Paulk returns at full strength at middle linebacker. Paulk has suffered season-ending knee injuries each of the past two seasons.

The Gamecocks should be outstanding in the secondary, led by sophomore cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who started every game as a true freshman last season. He’s a future pro.

His high school teammate, DeVonte Holloman, is having a super spring at safety. But Holloman is a bit too heavy, and Johnson would like to see him lighter in the fall.

“I just don’t think you can play back there at 229 pounds,” Johnson said.

Junior Akeem Auguste has moved from cornerback to safety, but is being pushed by sophomore D.J. Swearinger, who’s been one of the Gamecocks’ breakthrough players this spring. Junior cornerback C.C. Whitlock has also had his moments this spring, although Johnson still wants to see him be more consistent.

“We’ve still got to prove it, but I think we’ll be better on defense than we were last year,” Gilmore said. “There were a lot of us feeling our way along last year because we hadn’t played. Everybody’s played now, and there are a lot of guys on this defense ready to leave their mark.”