COLUMBIA, S.C. – Flocking to the ball and flying to the ball may not appear to be wildly different descriptions of group tackling, but they could not be more different to South Carolina coach Will Muschamp.
“I’ve never said, ‘Flocking to the ball.’ Flying, that’s better,” Muschamp said. “We want to fly to the ball. We’re Gamecocks, we fly to the ball.”
The Gamecocks have taken on a different approach to tackling with Muschamp at the helm. Whether you call it flying or flocking, it’s about all 11 defensive players getting to the ball.
“If you play with great effort — fanatical effort — then you can be a pretty good defensive player, even if you may not be the most talented guy in the world,” Muschamp said.
The message starts with the defensive-minded Muschamp and it trickles down to his assistant coaches. Effort, toughness and discipline have been the messages to the whole team since the new staff arrived. Players often mention those three traits publicly and talk about a staff that preaches competing every day.
“You can’t really coach everything else, but you can coach effort,” junior safety D.J. Smith said. “Everybody can run to the ball. You ain’t gotta be talented to run to the ball.”
Smith said the difference in coaching has come partially because of the younger staff in Columbia, which includes defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson.
“They are more juiced up and more excited,” he said.
The players have reflected that emotion after going through a fall camp running from drill to drill and buying into playing with full effort. But if the effort and consistent team tackling aren’t seen, the players will know about it.
“If we miss too many, I know we run after practice,” Smith said. “I know in one of the scrimmages, we weren’t running to the ball enough, so T-Rob lined us up and we just did a bunch of suicides.
“If we don’t condition during practice, then we are definitely going to condition after practice.”
The work to clean up tackling — not a strong point a season ago for USC — was drilled into the Gamecocks through preseason camp. Junior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said the level of tackling was amped up and it has continued into the season, with hitting at 7:30 a.m. during practices except for the day before travel.
On his Sunday night teleconference, Muschamp recalled three live situations in preseason camp that saw South Carolina tackle well. The proper techniques have been a focus he and his defensive coaching staff brought in with them, as players even said specialists and tight ends were involved in tackling drills.
Muschamp’s evaluation of the first test against Vanderbilt concluded there were moments where the defensive line was “bounced around” when Vanderbilt went to its power run game. Muschamp also said that he and his staff are “hard judgers” on missed tackles, which Allen-Williams said the defense still can improve on after the game.
But all in all, Muschamp was satisfied with the debut.
“Certainly, our guys carried through pretty well,” he said. “For our first ballgame, I was very pleased.”
The Gamecocks had added motivation to tackle well and shut down the Vanderbilt rushing attack. Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb made a comment guaranteeing a win and it stuck in their heads. Senior linebacker T.J. Holloman said the Gamecocks “wanted him to eat his words” after the USC left the field with a 13-10 win.
“A lot of teams, they say we can’t stop the run,” Allen-Williams said postgame. “I feel like Ralph Webb, coming out saying he was going to guarantee a ‘W,’ we kinda took offense to that. …
“Coach T-Rob, coach Muschamp, they told us everybody has a plan until you punch them in the mouth. We tried to go out there and punch them in the mouth every play.”
The true measurement of success for the Gamecocks in stopping the run consistently against Vanderbilt. Muschamp was most interested in the fact the longest run of the game against his defense was just 13 yards.
“Against a team like that that is so committed to running the ball, you’re going to have some of those,” Muschamp said. “It’s no different than when you play a passing team. They’re going to hit some balls on you. If they are going to be committed to doing it, they are going to have their opportunities.
“We needed to limit the long run and we needed to limit Ralph Webb in the game, and we were able to do so.”
The end result was 183 rushing yards allowed on 42 carries for the Commodores. Webb had 97 yards, but it took 20 attempts to get near a 100-yard rushing day for the junior.
Smith confessed he is not a stat person but felt “like that’s pretty decent.”
So how would he evaluate how well the Gamecocks run defense performed?
“If everybody runs to the ball and gives it the effort, I really don’t care what the numbers are,” Smith said. “If everybody is playing hard, then that’s fine with me.”