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September 27, 2013

Aiken: Too late for leaders?

It's said that the beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name, and it might be fair to say that almost a third of the way through the season, No. 12 South Carolina's defense is what it is - a hard-working group with elite talent but one without the vocal leadership of year's past.

I've heard it over and over in countless conversations on and off the record about this team, most recently from defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward last night at the Thursday press conference, where he said the coaching staff was still looking to develop some vocal leaders.

I'm sure the staff hoped by now that process already would have been complete, because if it hasn't happened yet, it may be too late for that to start now. I'm also not even sure it's such a bad thing - plenty of good defenses have been led by people who let their play do their talking, and no one questions the talent on this defense, only the experience (linebackers).

Compounding matters - and probably making the problem look far larger than it really is - was the gashing at Georgia that was as much a physical whipping as it was a coaching clinic in which the defensive staff didn't appear to have answers to what the Bulldogs were doing and were literally in each other's faces, the young players got swallowed up and the elite players were disappointing.

When such is the case in what I'd argue was the season's biggest game, suddenly the story wasn't the offense or how would Connor Shaw perform on the road, it was "What in the world is wrong with the defense?"

That's when we started to hear about the lack of the kind of vocal leadership the defense has been spoiled rotten with in past years. That's when the scrutiny on an exceptional talent such as Jadeveon Clowney suddenly turns ugly, looking for flaws with all its combined might and, it must be said, finding them, even if they're the same ones he's always had.

For everything Clowney is, he's never been a rah-rah guy that goes around and fires up everyone else. He's his own cat and always has been, so it's unfair to expect him to turn into D.J. Swearinger overnight. He still does things on Earth almost no other human being can do, and so you'll take the trade-off of vocal leader versus planetary phenom every day of the week and twice on Saturdays.

Getting a third-year player like Cedrick Cooper - smart, talented, vocal - back on the field beginning Saturday will help that situation, especially with a linebacking corps so young, so inexperienced, so raw.

But other than that, I don't think there's too much more the coaches or anyone else can do or even should do beyond continuing to prepare the team as best as they're able. The best part about the situation on defense is the schedule sets up now for them rather perfectly - UCF, then Kentucky at home to repair the leaks, gel as a unit and then go take care of the season's toughest stretch on the road at Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri, all games the Gamecocks will be favored in.

By the time USC faces another Georgia-style offense, it will be when Clemson shows up in Columbia, and by then - and playing at home - I don't think people will still be talking about the defense missing the vocal leadership of years past. Is it an issue? A little. Is it a major one? I think not. Sometimes, defenses don't have vocal guys and do just fine. Sometimes, they even dominate. I think by the end of the year, South Carolina will have done far more of the latter than the former, and the conversations about missing guys like D.J. Swearinger will be long, long forgotten.

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