We next turn our attention to the South Carolina defensive backs for this Gamecocks Report Card.
Here is a snapshot -
Discussion: Our secondary is terrible as a unit. They can't cover anybody, and they are always getting beat. We better hope Florida State hasn't discovered the forward pass yet, or our secondary won't be able to stop them. I don't know why Ellis Johnson and Lorenzo Ward can't coach pass defense in 2011. If you've been reading the message boards or following media reports, comments like these are probably what you've been reading. That's not this Gamecocks Blog's take on the secondary. Read more for some explaining...
Those comments aren't wholly without merit, even if they are hyperbolic. The secondary finished 93rd in the country and 10th in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Put another way, the quarterbacks the Gamecocks played against had a pretty good pass efficiency rating against us. That statistic looks like a smoking gun, but it only tells part of the story.
Look at the numbers for the defensive backs above. Notice how many tackles they each had. Gilmore led the team; Swearinger was third; Holloman was fourth; Auguste was sixth, and Culliver was 12th in only 7 games. These guys made a lot of tackles. You can draw one of two conclusions from those numbers. The first conclusion would be that our front seven did a terrible job, and the secondary have to save our defense from touchdowns. We were 10th in the country against the run, so I don't think that was the case. The other conclusion that could be drawn is that our secondary played close to the line of scrimmage and was asked to be active in run support. I think the evidence points to this conclusion as the correct one.
A side effect of having a secondary close to the line of scrimmage engaged in aggressive run support is that they are more vulnerable to the pass, especially deep. This is one of the factors that led to the poor pass defense numbers. A second factor was the lack of interceptions. Interceptions ruin a quarterback's pass efficiency rating. Lack of them ruins the defense's rating.
The third factor was the success of the offense. To win 9 games, you usually lead lots of games. Our team certainly did this year. When you are leading, your opponent will pass the ball more to catch up quickly. Depending on the size of the lead, your defense might be inclined to let them pass, so long as they are short passes and take up clock time. Leading games in the second half leads to an inflated pass efficiency rating for the offenses you face.
When viewed in light of the whole season, the pass efficiency defense rating doesn't look quite so bad. That's not to say that it is especially good, but the Gamecocks didn't play consistently terribly in the secondary as some would have you believe. There were drives (Clemson's first) and halves (Kentucky's second) and games (Arkansas and the SECCG) where the secondary didn't play its best, but that doesn't mean their whole season was bad.
Despite any explanation, the secondary's play seems so disappointing because the expectations were so high. The amount of returning talent in the secondary was great, and all of those players are experienced. When they didn't live up to the loftiest of expectations, they were viewed as a failure. Remember that our pass defenses of years past benefitted greatly from opponents' ability to run the football. If they could run the ball with success, there was no reason for them to pass.
Grade: C. Notice that this is the same grade the offensive line received. The difference in perspective for the two units often comes down to expectations. We didn't expect much from the line, but we expected the world from the secondary as in our Gamecocks Podcast at the beginning of the season we were talking best in nation. We shouldn't have been surprised when they didn't deliver, but we shouldn't assume that they were a failure either. They played well at times and poorly at times. They suffered from high expectations and juxtaposition with a strong run defense.
Glancing Ahead: Next year expectations should be high again. Gilmore and Whitlock return at the corners, and Holloman, Auguste and Swearinger will be back at safety. Guys like Vic Hampton should be in the mix, along with some new guys hopefully. Development of depth will be a overall concern, but the starters are experienced and talented, like the rest of the defense and should improve in all areas on this year's performance.