I was talking this week with South Carolina Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, and we both laughed about two-thirds of the way through a 15-minute conversation.
Why? Because I hadn't brought up Jadeveon Clowney to that point.
Imagine that, right? The defensive player on the tip of everyone's tongues, and we were talking about everyone else. The reason: It takes more than one player on an 11-man unit to be successful in the SEC, even if that one player is a potential Heisman finalist and an essential lock to go No. 1 overall in April's NFL draft.
I was curious to talk broadly with Ward about a group that, Clowney notwithstanding, will look different after the Gamecocks lost five players to the draft in the past two years. That includes two 2012 first-rounders in lineman Melvin Ingram and corner Stephon Gilmore and a 2013 second-rounder in hard-hitting safety D.J. Swearinger.
Ward was extremely upbeat about the players filling those roles as well as the younger prospects who will play rotationally.
That's important, seeing as how the defense has been a large reason South Carolina has won a school-record 11 games each of the past two seasons. (See chart at right.) The D also will play an essential role in the Gamecocks' run at an SEC title in 2013. Although the offense returns most of its key pieces from last year's above-average unit (fifth in the SEC in points per drive), it is the performance of the players on defense not named Clowney who will determine how far this team goes.
There's reason to believe this group is ready. South Carolina is a program that, through recruiting and development, has risen to a point of sustainability. That wasn't the case when I started covering the team in 2007 for the Charleston, S.C., newspaper, nor when Ward joined the staff as the secondary coach in 2009. But it has gradually become reality, even if an SEC title and a BCS berth have so far eluded still-energetic coach Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks.
"That just shows you where the program is," Ward said. "Five years ago, it would have really hurt us to lose so many guys to the league. But we've found players, and they're growing up."
So, from front to back, let's take a look at the key pieces to South Carolina's 2013 defense outside of Clowney. (And maybe a little bit about him, too.)
Given the departure of Devin Taylor, who had 18.5 career sacks, I was surprised by one statement in particular that Ward volunteered.
"The four guys we've got this year [rushing the passer] will be better than the four guys we had last year," he said.
He said English could be every bit as good as Taylor, if not better. And he said Harris -- slightly built for end at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds -- didn't pan out at linebacker, but he is particularly skilled at one thing: "He can get around the end," Ward said. "He can get to the quarterback."
At tackle, Kelcy Quarles (8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks in 2012) is poised to progress, and his stand-in, third-year sophomore Phillip Dukes, was coveted during his recruitment by Nick Saban and others.
Oh, and that Clowney guy. As you'd expect, Ward suspects offensive lines will be so focused on him that the others will naturally be neglected. Or perhaps miscommunication, like the one between Michigan All-America tackle Taylor Lewan and a teammate, will lead to another "The Hit" moment.
If there's a soft spot on this unit, it's the middle after the team lost five linebackers from a year ago (if you count the "spur" linebacker-safety spot as a linebacker).
Yes, the Gamecocks will start at least two sophomores -- the starters on the line and in the secondary are expected to be made up solely of juniors and seniors -- but Ward was more hopeful about his personnel than perhaps the fan base or those glancing at a depth chart.
"Everybody's worried about the linebackers, but I'm not worried about the linebackers," he said. "This is as athletic of a group as we've had since I've been here."
It seemed as if Shaq Wilson had been in Columbia since the Lou Holtz era, and he was a highly intelligent player at the middle linebacker position, but he was a bit undersized and never fully rebounded from an early career hamstring injury.
The concern with projected starter Kaiwan Lewis and reserve T.J. Holloman was whether they could help get the line properly aligned, something at which Wilson was terrific. Ward said Lewis and Holloman excelled at it in the spring -- in part because Wilson is still around, as a grad assistant.
Ward said Marcquis Roberts and Kelvin Rainey had big springs at weakside linebacker, making the staff feel comfortable about their ability to rotate in for projected starter Cedrick Cooper. It was a solid spring in that regard for a lot of reserves, Ward said.
At spur, veteran DeVonte Holloman (6-2, 241 pounds) will be missed. He was a heart-and-soul type of guy. Junior Sharrod Golightly and freshman Jordan Diggs, the candidates there, are rangier than Holloman, but Ward said they also will not be able to match up on tight ends and bigger backs. Ward said the position will be more akin to what it was two seasons ago, when Antonio Allen (who is built similarly to Golightly and Diggs) was successful.
The spur spot, which makes the 4-2-5 scheme (first installed at South Carolina by Ward's mentor, Ellis Johnson), is geared to better defend the spread and tempo offenses that are becoming more and more prevalent everywhere, including the SEC.
Corner is probably the most experienced position on the field, with junior Vic Hampton and senior Jimmy Legree. But Ward did express some concern in developing depth behind them, in case they need a breather or get injured. Ahmad Christian is a young player the staff likes, but I am told it would have preferred for him to stick with spring ball instead of playing a small role on the baseball team.
Ward loves pressure, and he's got a pretty solid mix to take some chances on blitzes or get home with a four-man front, especially when Harris and English are on the field in a three- or four-DE set.
With relative experience on the back end, Ward can be a bit more exotic in his calls. And having Clowney does free up others who have shown a knack for pass-rushing. That applies particularly to Sutton and Quarles, who could develop into All-SEC performers.
The Gamecocks are flexing their muscles a little bit here by showing they can replace good players with good players. That's a testament to their work on the recruiting trail and developing those prospects once they get on campus. If the replacements can match or improve upon the performance level set by the units of the past two years, the Gamecocks -- who arguably have an easier schedule than top SEC East challengers Georgia and Florida -- will be a legitimate threat to win the division.