Will Muschamp made it defensive priority number one when he got to campus and now it’s a full-blown movement in year two: find ball, get ball.
The Gamecocks put immense pressure on forcing turnovers, so much so they turned a trashcan into a “Ballhawk Bucket” and handed out T-shirts with the same mantra to players who forced turnovers in practice.
It’s turned into a mindset that’s enveloped every member of the defense.
“That’s always on my mind,” defensive end Dante Sawyer said. “I’m going to go for the ball, secure the tackle, strip, whatever I can do to get the ball back to the offense.”
South Carolina has a plus-seven turnover margin this season, which is third-best in the SEC behind Alabama (plus-12) and Kentucky (plus-eight).
It’s emphasized every week in practice and in the meeting rooms, and the coaches constantly harp on the philosophy of getting the ball back by any means necessary.
They teach technique, they go over examples, and Muschamp said some players like former Muschamp player and current Seattle Seahawk Earl Thomas and current defensive back Steven Montac have a knack for finding the ball.
“Our defensive staff does a phenomenal job – we have a turnover circuit every Tuesday and they do a great job of pointing to violators when the ball is not in a secure position, people we try and go after in a game,” Muschamp said. “They show video examples. They show pictures. They do everything to emphasize that part of the game.”
Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson and the rest of that staff tells players to force three turnovers a day in practice, and if they do that then the Gamecocks will have a good shot winning any Saturday.
That opportunistic defense can be frustrating for opposing teams, but it can also madden the offense going up against it every day in practice.
“I like to say they know our plays at practice, that’s my excuse at practice,” Jake Bentley said, smiling, when asked if he gets picked off. “They’re always talking about getting the ball out, whether their stripping the ball from our running backs or jumping routes. They do a good job at just attacking the ball.”
The pass rush is a big part of that, too, Sawyer said.
Last week against Arkansas, the defensive line pressured Razorback quarterbacks Austin Allen and Cole Kelley seven times and it resulted in two interceptions, both pick sixes.
D.J. Wonnum earned SEC defensive lineman of the week for his efforts against Arkansas, notching a team-high four tackles and two pass breakups.
“I feel like young buck D.J. Wonnum’s doing a great job too holding it down,” Sawyer said. “We got guys that are going to keep stepping up. If we can generate a good pass rush, then they’ll throw it to us basically.”
South Carolina ranks 13th nationally in turnover margin, and tied for second in the SEC with six interceptions on the season.
Skai Moore ranks in the top 10 in the conference in interceptions with two picks, and T.J. Brunson is second among SEC defenders with two fumble recoveries.
Forcing turnovers is something that’s become second nature to a surprisingly stifling defense through six games, and it’s only going to get better according to Montac.
“The only surprise is we didn’t get four turnovers every game,” he said. “We have the best defense in the country, we just have to keep playing like that. We have the best coaching staff; we have the best players. We just have to continue growing.”