Lorenzo Ward officially debuted as South Carolina’s defensive coordinator almost a year ago, on Jan. 2, when USC beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.
Soon thereafter, as Ward and defensive line coach Brad Lawing looked at the players they were losing, they considered the impact of one person in particular: tackle Travian Robertson.
He was not USC’s most talented defensive player by any means, and he would end up being a seventh round NFL draft pick. But he was valuable to USC as its “push guy” in third-down passing situations, meaning he could get push up the middle and pressure the quarterback.
Throughout spring practices, it became obvious to Ward and Lawing that the Gamecocks did not have a tackle who could do that. New starter Byron Jerideau was a sturdy run stopper, and returning starter Kelcy Quarles was surely going to build on the potential he demonstrated as a true freshman in 2011, but neither qualified as a “push guy.”
So Ward and Lawing talked in the spring and summer about created a special third-down pass rush package with four defensive ends on the field at the same time. Lawing decided to call it the “rabbits” package, because it favored speed over size. Ward said he has never coached on a team that used a four-ends package, and has never even seen another defense do something like this.
The package – in which ends Aldrick Fordham and Chaz Sutton replace Jerideau and Quarles – has worked well for the Gamecocks this season and could be an asset as they try to chase down one or both of Michigan’s mobile quarterbacks, Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson, in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl.
The Gamecocks enter the game with 40 sacks this season, eighth-most nationally and nine more than they had last season, when they often played with three ends on the field at one time, but never four. Ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor have 13 and three sacks, while Sutton has five and Fordham has 4½.
Last year, Clowney entered the game in a three-ends package, with Robertson remaining on the field. Of course, Clowney is now a starter, having replaced first-round pick Melvin Ingram after last season, and is one of the best players in college football.
Despite having to use Fordham (a converted tackle) and Sutton as the extra ends this season, rather than Clowney, Ward said he didn’t have any doubts that the rabbits package would succeed like it has.
Lawing knows how to make ends effective while lining them up inside at tackle. He did it with Cliff Matthews, Eric Norwood and Ingram. But the rabbits package is a bit different than that, and the Gamecocks haven’t seemed to miss a beat while transitioning to it.
“We’ve totally dedicated ourselves to playing with four ends in passing situations this season,” Ward said Sunday. “You want to utilize your talent. We didn’t think we had that much power inside by losing Travian. What we wanted to do to counteract that in passing situations, instead of having a guy push the pocket, let’s put more speed out there. It was just based on the personnel we had.
“I think that’s the sign of the great coach that Brad Lawing is. Third down, all I have to do is tell Brad to rush and he puts the stunt on. I don’t call the stunts. He calls it. He studies the protection. I trust my coaches and he does a great job of attacking people in the way they protect us.”
Ward expects other teams to consider using a four-ends package, and also to react to USC’s scheme by altering their offensive plans.
“That’s the way the game of football is,” Ward said of the copy-cat mentality. “I think what teams will do (on offense), they’ll eventually go back and say, ‘OK if they’re going to put their small guys out there, we’re going to run the football.’ That’s where as a coach, you’ve got to understand that and you’ve got to call stunts to stop the run. And we do that. We’ve done a great job of stopping the run in our rabbits package even when people want to run the football on third down on us.”
USC ranks No. 16 nationally with 119 rushing yards allowed per game and No. 9 with 3.11 yards allowed per carry, though sacks factor into those stats. On third down, when the rabbits package is used, USC allows 2.21 yards per rush – No. 26 nationally.
But Ward doesn’t expect the advent of the rabbits package to alter USC’s recruiting philosophy.
“It won’t change because we’re going to need some big (defensive tackle) guys on first and second down to stop the run, and we’re going to want some athletic (defensive end) guys,” he said. “But we definitely want to always try to recruit as many defensive end-type guys in this program as we can, because they allow you to do a lot of things.”
Here now, some other items from Ward’s final pregame media pow-wow of the season, after the Gamecocks’ final practice …
** How much has the uncertainty about Michigan’s quarterback situation affected USC’s preparation?
“Not all,” Ward said. “We don’t care. They’re both athletic. They both can run the football. They both can throw the football. To us, it’s the same guy.”
But the extra time to prepare has to have helped, right?
“For what we do on defense, it’s irrelevant,” Ward said. “We play against a running quarterback every day in Connor Shaw. We know that any time you’ve got a quarterback that can run the football, you have to make sure you dedicate enough people to the box to stop the run, so that’s something that we practice against every day.”
** Ward knows Clowney faces a big test in Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan.
“On paper, it probably is (Clowney’s biggest test of the season),” Ward said. “I think the young man at Tennessee (tackle Antonio Richardson) played very well against Clowney. I know Clowney was a little banged up with his foot, but (Richardson) played very well against (Clowney).
** Clowney has developed in his second year at USC, thanks to tough love from Lawing.
“I like to consider myself the good cop because coach Lawing rides him all the time,” Ward said. “There’s nothing positive that comes out of coach Lawing’s mouth to Jadeveon. So I have to always kind of pick him up and let him know that’s what it takes. It takes tough love. I remember Melvin Ingram, his first three or four years here, coach Lawing rode him, rode him, rode him, and his senior year, he really loved it. He understands that’s what it takes to be good, and I think Jadeveon is doing that.”
** Monday’s print edition will include a story on USC free safety D.J. Swearinger, who walks the line between aggressive and foolish on the field sometimes.
“Like throwing the ball into the stands?” Ward said, referring to Swearinger’s touchdown celebration against Arkansas. “We don’t ever want to take a penalty. D.J. was punished for that situation. It didn’t affect the football game. Instead of getting on him, you want to explain to him that if this is a closer ball game, that situation and giving them 15 yards could put us right back behind the eight ball. I think he understands that. He’s an emotional guy and we want to make sure he channels it in the right direction.”
Swearinger also flexed over Clemson running back Andre Ellington after popping him and drew a 15-yard penalty. Ward said he was punished for that, too.
“The bottom line is, we want to do this game and play with sportsmanship,” Ward said. “You can play, as coach (Steve) Spurrier said, and be the toughest SOB and still play with great sportsmanship. This game is tough enough. Nobody wants to hurt anybody and we don’t want to mock anybody when we do make a big play.”
Ward said Swearinger will probably play only free safety in his final game after dabbling at corner recently.
“We feel good about (corners) Vic (Hampton) and Akeem (Auguste), and Jimmy (Legree) can go in and player corner also, but D.J. will play safety,” Ward said.
** Ward senses a level of confidence in his defense.
“I remember a couple days before we played Clemson, and then on the Friday night when we were at the hotel, coach Spurrier said, ‘For some reason, y’all seem real loose,’” Ward said. “I think it’s the personality of this team. I think they know what we’ve got to do. I think they understand what we’re doing, scheme-wise, and they’re confident in their abilities. I think there is an air of confidence about the guys. These guys want to make their own name (after the 2011 group had lots of success).”