But from the time the new coaching staff arrived to the run-up of Saturday’s second scrimmage of camp, that group has come so far some in its ranks are talking in terms of wanting to become the best secondary in the country.
“From a knowledge of the game and tackling and all the things we expect from the secondary, I think they’ve come a million miles, I really do,” Gamecocks head coach Bill Clark said.
That’s a long way on a lot of levels.
A year ago, the Gamecocks ranked 105th out of 121 teams in the FCS in total defense (438.18 yards per game) and 103rd against the pass, giving up 250.55 yards a game — and they were one of the best in the Ohio Valley Conference. They got clipped for 23 touchdown passes and had only nine interceptions.
It was their highest per-game passing yardage average since giving up 276.5 in 2003, their first year in the OVC. That secondary gave up 25 passing touchdowns, but had 15 interceptions.
The Gamecocks gave up 38 passing plays of 20 yards or longer last year, 20 of 30 yards-plus. Nine of the 38 went for touchdowns.
Granted, the game has evolved to that extreme and the OVC was the most prolific passing league in the FCS, but the numbers were simply unacceptable for Clark’s defensive mindset.
“We are the last line of defense so we want to make sure we’re sound and we’re vocal,” defensive coordinator and safeties coach Duwan Walker said. “We have to make sure the communication is right in our triangle and make sure we get the back end working with the front end.
“We do understand the game starts up front and if we have a lot of tackles in the secondary that ain’t good. Our job is to make sure they understand how the back end works with the front end. It comes back to your philosophy of defense and I’m not sure exactly what the philosophy was before.”
Part of the improvement being seen is simply a matter of maturity. Last year’s starting JSU secondary had two sophomores and a true freshman and the depth chart had three sophomores and two freshmen.
It was a steep learning curve for a team that started the season at Arkansas and ended it at Florida.
Now there is experience and depth, which Walker called “huge” within the last line of defense. Junior Hough, Rashod Byers and Appalachian State transfer Jamill Lott headline the rotation on the corners. Pierre Warren, Ace Lockheart and Brandon Bender headline the rotation among the safety. The depth behind them is building to a point Robert Gray has moved from the secondary to outside linebacker in order to facilitate getting the best 11 players on the field.
“I think the sky actually will be the limit for this secondary because everybody had their first year experience last year,” Warren said. “Now, everybody’s really experienced and we all have good chemistry with each other and always on the same page. We really are some ballhawks out there.”
The Gamecocks didn’t record their first interception last year until the fifth game of the season. Once the first one came, they showed up in bunches. They got seven in the next three games. Hough led the team with three and Byers, the team’s third-leading tackler, had two and a team-high nine breakups.
The Gamecocks will have target benchmarks for each game under their watch. The players and coaches are still in the process of determining those goals, but Walker promises they will set the bar high but reachable.
That’s fine with the players, who already are competing among the positions and themselves for interceptions in camp.
“We do want to step up more because last season we didn’t have the best we know we could play,” Warren said. “This year we’re really trying to have some shutouts and just really be the best defense in the country.”
That would be quite a turnaround from where they finished the year before.
“That’s what we want,” Hough said. “We want the pressure so we can make a statement in the conference this year. We want the pressure on our back so we can prove everybody wrong. That’s all we want to do.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.