Before the South Carolina Gamecocks set defense back with some abysmal performances in 2014, they had ranked among the top five of the SEC in scoring defense in four of the previous five seasons.
In 2014, South Carolina ranked 12th, allowing 30.4 points a contest. That number shot up to 36.8 in conference play. South Carolina ranked 13th in total defense, allowing 458.5 yards per SEC game, and rushing defense, giving up 235.8 yards in conference play. They allowed an SEC-high 6.2 yards per play and 202 plays of 10-plus yards last year.
There's a reason why Steve Spurrier hired long-time NFL assistant Jon Hoke to be co-defensive coordinator with Lorenzo Ward. South Carolina has some young talent that has the potential to turn things around, but how soon that happens is anyone's guess.
Here's a look back at the rest of this series from the SEC.
Why South Carolina will have a respectable defense in 2015:
Impact newcomers: Though the Gamecocks do have a handful of defensive linemen returning from last season's team, this defense will likely have to rely heavily on the play of youngsters and newcomers if it's going to have a chance at redemption. South Carolina did a decent job with the defensive side of its 2015 recruiting class, and should get immediate help from junior college standout Marquavius Lewis and prep school stars Dante Sawyer and Dexter Wideman along the defensive line. That's where the Gamecocks need the most help, and South Carolina's coaching staff did an excellent job getting three incredibly talented pieces of the puzzle on campus for the 2015 season. Lewis has a chance to be a very special player off the edge for the Gamecocks. Kansas graduate transfer Isaiah Johnson, who was once a Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, should play immediately at one of the safety spots.
Hoke's help: Spurrier hired his old friend (they coached three years at Florida together) because he needed help getting this defense together. Some of last season's issues were on the coaching, but Hoke should help make things easier for players by installing a base 4-3 scheme instead of having guys switch between a 4-2-5 and 3-4 like they did last season. Already, it appears guys are more comfortable in new positions, like T.J. Gurley moving from safety to nickelback and Jordan Diggs moving from the hybrid Spur position to safety. Hoke spent the past 13 years in the NFL as a defensive backs coach, meaning he will be hands-on with the secondary, which will have to improve a pass defense that went from 12th-ranked nationally in 2013 to 52nd in 2014.
East quarterback issues: So the East wasn't great with its quarterback play last season, and the Gamecocks still struggled, allowing 406.2 yards per game against divisional opponents. But this side of the conference still hasn't exactly figured things out under center. Right now, Missouri (Maty Mauk) and Tennessee (Joshua Dobbs) are the only East teams with a certified starting quarterback. That leaves four of South Carolina's opponents still trying to sort things out, and that's a good thing for the Gamecocks. If those teams let their quarterback issues ooze into the regular season, South Carolina's defense could greatly benefit, especially with the Missouri game in early October and Tennessee in November.
Why South Carolina's won't have a respectable defense in 2015:
Unproven pass-rushers: South Carolina did a good job of upgrading a defensive line in desperate need of talent, but the Gamecocks still don't have any proven SEC-caliber players up front. That's a major problem for a team that was awful when it came to getting after the quarterback last season. South Carolina managed a league-low 14 sacks, with eight coming in SEC play, and ranked 121st nationally in tackles for loss (52). South Carolina's defensive line returns just four sacks from last season. It's great to have a lot of youth coming in to help, but that youth has no idea what it's like playing in SEC trenches.
Lack of true playmakers: Outside of linebacker Skai Moore, who is truly one of the SEC's best at his position, who are the real game-changers for the Gamecocks? Right now, South Carolina just doesn't have any other consistent playmakers on defense. That could change with the addition of those defensive linemen, and cornerback Chris Lammons is a breakout contender, but this defensive roster doesn't immediately intimidate you with talent. Fitting guys to a system is one thing -- and that's great -- but Hoke and Ward have to develop guys even more going into the season if this unit is going to get better. Do these coaches have enough time for that or will they just have to hope guys evolve during the season? I don't know, and that's a troubling thought.