March 30, 2008

Scrimmage Notebook: Johnson Talks Defense

If new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had to give his players a grade for their performance in Saturday's scrimmage at Williams-Brice, it would be B-minus.

"I wasn't displeased with today, but I don't think it's anything to write home about", Johnson said. "We have something to build on, but it's a very small step along the way. There were some things that were done well out there that I thought probably wouldn't be. But there were a lot of things we spend a lot of time on that I didn't think were very good. We have to get back to the drawing board and get back on the field and get back to work."

The Gamecock limited the offense to three touchdowns - none on the ground - and three field goals on the day.

But Johnson emphasized he wasn't looking for the defense to 'beat' the offense during the scrimmage. Rather, he's trying to find out which players the coaching staff can rely on when the fall arrives.

"People make way too much out of spring ball as far as (winning and losing) is concerned," Johnson said. "We're evaluating players. We're trying to identify players. Frankly, we're throwing some things out there and the offense is throwing things out there that we probably wouldn't even run in a game. We're just trying to see how players perform."

While USC has some talent on defense with players like Eric Norwood, some of USC's best defensive players haven't been on the field this spring. Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley has participated in non-contact drills only, while cornerback Captain Munnerlyn expects to wear a yellow jersey for the entire spring as he recovers from a micro-fracture in his foot.

The absence of Brinkley and Munnerlyn, in particular, have left a void.

"We have some talent, but we don't have enough discipline yet," Johnson said. "We probably don't have a lot of confidence. I don't see it yet. It's that lack of confidence where they think they're going to dominate. They think they're going to win. We have to develop that attitude and swagger and confidence you have to have to be a good defense. Without Jasper, these other guys have to step up."

Two players Johnson said he wants to see take the next step are Rodney Paulk, whom he described as a 'tough kid' who plays with a lot of intensity, and Melvin Ingram, who saw significant snaps as true freshman last season.

"Melvin has a lot of untapped potential," Johnson said. "He has to learn how to finish. He doesn't yet have that air of confidence and toughness and that attitude you need to have to dominate on the football field."

By his own admission, Johnson, who served as the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State the past four seasons, hasn't fully matched up the names and numbers of the players on USC's defense. As a result, he struggled to provide the name of any player that performed particularly well in Saturday's scrimmage.

"I didn't see anybody that really jumped out at me that I would put above everybody else," Johnson said. "I saw some real good plays on the ball downfield, but then I saw some mistakes where we weren't in good coverage sometimes."

Multiple defensive holding penalties and other similar miscues irked Johnson, though.

"Coach (Spurrier) likes both sides of the ball to be very aggressive on the practice field," Johnson said. "He likes that physical play on the perimeter. I like that philosophy. But the kids have to have the discipline when you bring the officials out here to know those techniques and when not to do those things. They were probably good calls."

In order to help the pass rush, Johnson and defensive line coach Brad Lawing are experimenting with moving defensive end Jordin Lindsey inside to defensive tackle in obvious passing situations.

"In our dime coverage with six defensive backs and one linebacker, we're going with our four best pass rushers," Johnson said. "Obviously, it gives us a great pass rush element. But they checked into a run a few times down there in the red zone."

A LEANER, LIGHTER ERIC NORWOOD?: With his move to outside linebacker, former defensive end Eric Norwood must lose about 10 to 15 pounds to help give him the mobility his new position demands.

"Right now, I'm at 265 (pounds)," Norwood said. "They want me to get down to about 250 (pounds). That's perfectly fine with me. I'll be down there by the start of the season. As long as I don't lose my strength, I'll be all right."

Ellis Johnson added: "He's got good mobility, but when you get up to 270 (pounds) and then we ask him to move in space, it's hard for him. He's going to drop a little weight along the way and he'll do more things to complement his ability. There's a lot more running in the open field than there is (at defensive end)."

Norwood was pleased with his performance in the first scrimmage at his new position. Later, he asserted the defensive coaches still plan to use him as a rush end on third down.

"I think I had about seven or right tackles, a sack and a couple of pressures," Norwood said. "I'm working on knowing where to be at all times. Once we get out of the spring and get to fall practice, I think I'll be a lot more comfortable

Johnson questioned after Saturday's scrimmage whether Norwood was being utilized correctly through the first six practices of the spring.

"In all fairness to him, I don't know if we have him in exactly the right spot," Johnson said. "We're going to do more things with that (weakside) linebacker spot that will complement him that we don't have in yet. Probably about 40 percent of what he's doing now doesn't play to his strengths. But I think if he does get a chance to play at the next level, he's going to have to do those things. I think he's a 3-4 linebacker, outside or inside."

SAUNDERS IMPRESSES EVERYBODY: If the first six practices have shown us anything, it's that 6-foot-5 tight end Weslye Saunders should be a major weapon in the USC offense this season. He had 12 catches for 151 yards last season, but his most well-known play may have come against Kentucky when he was stripped from behind inside the 5-yard line and fumbled into the end zone, where the ball was recovered by the Wildcats. New tight ends coach Ray Rychleski certainly sees the incredible potential the sophomore from Raleigh, N.C. possesses.

"I wasn't here last year but what I really like is his attitude," Rychleski said. "They told me he was an easy going type of guy last year. I don't see that. I see an attitude that he wants to be really good. The problem with Weslye is that the media has blown so much smoke up his butt that I have to bring him back down to earth. He hasn't done a lot around here yet. He fumbled against Kentucky, I know that. But am I happy with him."

Saunders caught four passes for 49 yards in Saturday's scrimmage, including a 12-yard TD pass from Tommy Beecher during the situational period towards the end of practice.

"Weslye will get anything you put in there in a tight spot," Chris Smelley said. "He caught some in the air while getting hit and he held onto the ball. Those kind of guys will make you look good."

Saunders has also drawn admiration from the USC defense, particularly defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has to figure out a way to stop him every day in practice.

"We have trouble covering (Saunders) in the red zone," Johnson said. "If they don't get him off the line of scrimmage, they're not going to cover him. They can't defend a properly thrown ball. He's a weapon. Weslye has really improved in his pass routes. He's getting better and better."

SMELLEY HAS 'SO-SO' SCRIMMAGE: Chris Smelley completed 15 of 26 passes for 184 yards in outperforming fellow QB Tommy Beecher (8-of-20, 91 yards) during Saturday's scrimmage. Still, the redshirt sophomore from Tuscaloosa rated his performance as "so-so."

"At times I was throwing the ball OK, at other times I was off," Smelley said. 'We have a couple of weeks of practice to get better. I thought I threw the ball pretty well. I've been tested all week. There are a lot of areas of improvement."

Smelley acknowledged his injured shoulder is still not 100 perfect, but he's willing to play through it this spring. He estimated his shoulder is about '75 percent' right now.

"It's going to be sore the whole spring," Smelley said. "But after a little time to recuperate this summer, it will be ready for the fall."

Smelley was 4-2 as a starter last season with mid-season victories over Mississippi State, Kentucky and North Carolina. He completed 92 of 162 passes (56.8 percent) for 1,176 yards and nine touchdowns in 2007.

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