Kicking it with Ellis Johnson

Lost in the glare of how dominant Alabama and LSU have been on defense this season is the job Ellis Johnson has done with the South Carolina defense.

Johnson, the Gamecocks’ assistant head coach for the defense, has his guys playing their best football of the season after a rocky start. South Carolina hasn’t given up a touchdown in three of its last five outings and hasn’t allowed more than 16 points in any of those five games. The Gamecocks are ranked sixth nationally in total defense and 14th in scoring defense.

But Johnson said the real test will come Saturday against Arkansas. The No. 9 Gamecocks could take a huge step toward wrapping up their second consecutive Eastern Division championship with a win.

We caught up with Johnson earlier this week to break down this game and his South Carolina defense. One of the best in the business, Johnson spent 28 days at Arkansas as defensive coordinator before getting the gig at South Carolina and moving closer to his and his wife’s home in the Palmetto State.

Here's our chat:

How different is Arkansas without Knile Davis at running back?

Ellis Johnson: (Dennis Johnson) is a heck of a running back, but Davis was a little bit different. They’re not minus a running game now and have a big, strong blocking fullback. You can’t just ignore the running game. If you start trying to play all these coverages to take away the deep ball and the short ball, they will find a way to run that football on you, and the next thing you know, the sticks are moving. Then you start getting tired, and they wear your butt out throwing the ball.

What’s a must for you guys defensively if you’re going to win this game?

EJ: They’re going to make some plays, and a lot of it’s going to be how we react. You don’t go out there thinking you’re going to smother these guys. You manage it and do what you can to limit it. If we’re going to have a chance, we’re going to have to stop the running game, and we’ve got to get to their quarterback with four guys.

What has allowed you to play so well defensively these last five games?

EJ: We’ve improved our play and have finally gotten some leadership and practice habits and cut out some of the stuff that I call trash yardage. It looks good in the stats, but it’s more important to me that they improve each week. I think we’ve done that, and the players seem to be understanding now the system, the adjustments and the formations. The toughest thing in college football is that every week you’re looking at a different style of offense, and you have to get the players adjusted to a whole different offense. So what I think we’ve improved on these last five weeks is that our kids have finally gotten a grasp of what we’re doing and have been able to adjust each week. We’ve been making a lot fewer mistakes and giving up a lot less trash yardage.

How much do the stakes go up facing a quarterback like Tyler Wilson?

EJ: We have not played a real top-flight quarterback in five weeks. And this week, that is not going to be the case. What I think is going to be critical is this: We’ve not given up a lot of plays, and our confidence has grown. But all of a sudden, if you start giving up a couple of plays in the first quarter or the first half, are you going to respond, or are you going to panic? That’s going to be the key to whether we’re really making progress.

You made so many plays on defense early in the season that saved you, and in a lot of cases, scored touchdowns on defense. Has it been a case of you guys simply being more consistent on defense?

EJ: Absolutely. Those plays you’re talking about, we made because of athleticism, speed and effort. But then you add discipline to it and doing what you’re supposed to, and it gets even better. Melvin Ingram was named national Defensive Lineman of the Week against Georgia, and he didn’t make a tackle in that game. So what I’m saying is that we were making all of the sexy plays for a few weeks. But, finally, we’ve gotten down to where we’re playing fundamental football and playing within our assignments.

You’ve made big plays on defense, but have given up very few of them. How big a factor has that been?

EJ: I read recently where we were one of four teams in the nation that did not have a play of 40 yards or longer against us. That’s pretty good in college football. The way college football is played today, that’s hard to do. We’ve been lucky a few times, but it does tell you that if your kids will play with effort and tackle well, you can keep big plays off the board. It’s so spread out and so different now, but you’ve got to keep from giving up those big plays that break your back.

Your kids on defense have seemed to embrace the fact that this is a different offense without Marcus Lattimore and that a lot of the burden is going to fall on the defense the rest of the way.

EJ: I think that’s part of the maturity thing, and we got on to them about it earlier in the year. We were out there trying to live off the offense scoring and go out there and get our little picks and turnovers and give up 380 yards. It was a bunch of trash. I don’t know whether it was because the competition level changed or we improved, but it was probably a little bit of both. I think we’re going to find out in the next three or four games that we’re not some kind of great, dominant defense, but I think we’ll prove that we’re pretty decent.

How heavy is that burden ... when your offense isn’t scoring a lot of points?

EJ: The thing I think our kids on defense have realized is that it wasn’t about the offense not scoring or anything like that. We weren’t getting our job done – period. And, now, we’re doing a better job of that and have gotten to the point where there’s some accountability on defense. Just because the ball is turned over at the 32-yard line doesn’t mean you have to give up a touchdown. Some of the older kids have stepped up. We’ve gotten more mature and just taken more pride in the whole thing. Again, though, we’re about to get tested in some areas we really haven’t been tested in, and I’m sort of curious myself to see how well we respond.