South Carolina's surprising defensive identity? Takeaways by the truckload
For much of last season, South Carolina had little more than a bumper-car defense, and it was especially terrible in the decisive stretch for Will Muschamp: LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, when the Gamecocks gave up at least 530 yards in each game.
This year is a stark contrast for a unit led by Clayton White that has already exceeded expectations and is among the nation’s leaders in takeaways. It is a welcome sight for defensive-weary Garnet-and-Black faithful.
South Carolina hasn’t finished in the SEC’s top 5 in total defense since 2017. In the last 8 years, the Gamecocks’ defense has been ranked 10th or below 5 times. But this season, it is No. 6, and it is tied for 3rd in America with 14 takeaways, including 9 interceptions.
Coach Shane Beamer is especially proud of the attitude of the defense behind White’s leadership, and his mantra of “put the ball down” and don’t worry about what just happened. That was never more evident than after Jahmar Brown’s fumble on Saturday against Troy near the goal line, which resulted in a touchback. The defense took the mindset of getting back out there as if nothing happened.
“Other than the fumble, that was an awesome series of events and how we responded,” Beamer said.
Beamer added that the team works on takeaways in practice. But it’s also the effort and “flying to the ball” that help create turnovers, because more players are in position when the ball becomes available. The length of the defensive linemen is another factor because of how they get their hands up and affect throws and bat balls at the line of scrimmage.
The Gamecocks also buy into White’s schemes, and the defensive backs recognize formations and anticipate routes because they’re great mentally during the week.
“So when you get out there on Saturday, you’re able to play with confidence and go execute,” Beamer said.
The poster child for this defense is Jaylan Foster, who has an inspiring personal story of going from a scout team walk-on player 2 years ago to leading the country in interceptions with 4 this season.
“Jaylan’s on a different level right now,” White said. “… Definitely proud of how he’s working, proud of how he’s bringing other guys along as far as being an influencer on the defense and the football team.”
But Foster is far from alone. Damani Staley, a linebacker, has 2 picks, and overall 5 different players have at least 1 interception. Staley, a backup for much of his time in Columbia, has 3 takeaways himself, and another oft-injured role player previously, Brad Johnson, has recovered a fumble.
White said the defense will continue to harp on takeaways, and everyone from the coaching staff to the team managers talk about “punch the ball out. Turnovers come in bunches, so you have to go create them. So we want to continue working on it. … We just want to keep working on it, and it’s obviously going to pay off in the long run.”
The improved defense can be traced to the hiring of White, and the early discussions with Beamer about the defensive identity and mistakes to fix from last season’s horrendous stretches.
“Just, here’s how we expect to play defense at the University of South Carolina,” Beamer said. “We went back and looked at the things that we didn’t do well as a football team in 2020, and one of those was stopping the run, one of those was giving up explosive plays. Clayton’s got a good way about himself about getting those guys ready during the game. Those guys are playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
Those takeaways have come at great times, too, to turn games around. The Gamecocks got interceptions returned for touchdowns by Staley and David Spaulding before halftime at East Carolina and against Troy.
This week, the Gamecocks may face their toughest task of the season from an opposing offense. Tennessee is coming off a 62-point showing at Missouri and rang up 683 yards and 35 first downs.
Takeaways would be a welcome sight to stem those numbers.