The walls in Gamecocks defensive coordinator Chris Boone’s workroom are paneled with three big whiteboards — right, left and center — and, like a mathematics professor trying to calculate the final digit of pi, he spends all week marking them with the Xs and Os and squiggles that represent the plays, schemes, blitzes and coverages intended for that week’s opponent.
When the game is over, he slips back into the room and wipes all the boards clean so he can start the process all over again the next day.
“I guess in the last three years, this league, to me, has really changed,” Boone said. “I think Jacksonville State’s been very consistent, Tennessee State’s been very consistent, but everybody else on offense ... it’s a different game.
“People are putting up a lot of points and a lot yards — the most I’ve ever seen, the most I’ve ever coached against. You try to stay as much in the system you’re doing, but at the same time each offense is different.”
As he spoke, he pulled a blue dry-erase Sharpie from behind his left ear. The marker has become Boone’s “lucky pen,” the only one he’s used the last four weeks as the Gamecocks’ young secondary has seasoned and overall defense has continued to improve.
After a 51-21 pasting by Eastern Kentucky in their conference opener, that white board was soaked with red ink as the Gamecocks found themselves a lot closer to the bottom of the national defensive statistics than they were to the top. They ranked 117th in the FCS in total defense, 111 in scoring defense, 106 against the pass and 109 against the run; they were 121 in pass efficiency defense.
But their fortunes began to turn as the Gamecocks became more familiar with their personnel and their young defense started to mature. Going into Saturday’s game with Murray State and the most explosive offense in the league, they are now 97th in total defense and 72nd — second in the OVC — against the pass. Where once they were dead-last in pass efficiency defense, they are now 74th.
It’s not like the Gamecocks really are starting their defensive makeover from square one; the base formations and coverages have long been in place, but whatever had happened in the past — even a week ago — are of no consequence. It’s all about who they’re playing this week and what they have to do to survive.
Think of the playbook as a buffet and Boone is simply plucking the most savory morsels from under the sneeze guard to satisfy that week’s tastes.
What may have worked against a pass-happy team like Eastern Illinois may not be suitable for Murray State. By the same token, some things they did in the opener against Arkansas might not be pulled out again until this week.
“It’s like going to the cafeteria,” JSU head coach Jack Crowe said. “You’ve got three meats, six vegetables, four different salads. You’re not going to get lobster, but you’ve got some idea what the components in the kitchen are to know what the choices are going to be, and then you make a selection.
“We’ve got a stocked kitchen, let’s see what the cafeteria line has to offer today. It’s pre-cooked, pre-prepared, now it’s figuring out which piece to put with this piece and fit what they’re doing to fit the players. He’s truly coordinating in there.”
The process starts with watching film and dissecting tendencies all day Sunday and Monday. At some point on Monday, the first blue pen strokes hit the board. By the end of the week, all three boards are covered with the ideas they have taken into practice to be accepted or dismissed. No one is allowed to write on the boards except Boone and Crowe.
“Usually after the first day we’ve only got one or two calls up there, and that’s all we’ll do the first day of practice and try to build on it from there,” cornerbacks coach Brandon Cooper said. “If we think it’s good, we’ll leave it there. If we think it’s not, we’ll erase it off.”
“We do a lot of erasing,” Boone said. “You write with the pencil lead ... all the way up to the middle of Wednesday, then you start using the eraser end. There are always going to be some calls that stay on there, but we still erase them every week anyway and go from scratch. My goal is by Tuesday afternoon we’re going to take the best things they do, the top things they do, and try to stop them.”
It may seem like a lot of extra work — the writing, erasing and rewriting — but Boone has always done it that way. Jason Simpson remembers the same approach when Boone was his defensive coordinator at UT Martin and the Skyhawks were among the strongest defensive teams in the country.
“One hundred percent he did that and he’s very good at it,” Simpson said. “It’s very hard to game plan for him because you don’t know what you’re going to see. He’ll be different week to week within the scheme of what he does. He leaves no stone unturned.
“When you say rebuild, he’s not some mad scientist asking the players to do something they can’t do or isn’t within the vocabulary or structure of what they do. They are subtle changes to him, but big ones to the opponent.”
In the OVC one almost has to do it that way to stay current. In the last four weeks, the Gamecocks have played a run-oriented team (Southeast Missouri), two pass-happy teams (Tennessee Tech and Eastern Illinois) and a balanced team (Tennessee State). This week, they play the most prolific offense of them all, and the following week they get perhaps the next most prolific passer in UT Martin.
“Each week is different, especially in this league,” Boone said. “I think all leagues are starting to be like this — you go from one extent to the other. You want to be multiple (defensively), but at the same time you don’t want to do too much that the kids can’t handle.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.