For all intents and purposes, the Capital One Bowl will serve as a one-game audition for Lorenzo Ward as South Carolina's defensive play-caller in the wake of Ellis Johnson's sudden departure to become the head coach at Southern Miss.
Barring a complete meltdown by the USC defense on Jan. 2, Steve Spurrier's best option could be to give the full-time gig to Ward and then hire a linebackers coach for the 2012 season.
Even though Ward held the title of defensive coordinator since being hired in January of 2009, the buck stopped at Johnson, who was afforded the title of Assistant Head Coach for Defense.
Johnson, not Ward, was the one who sat in the coaches' box on game day and had final say on personnel, schemes and alignments, although Ward contributed during the week when the game plan was developed and fine-tuned.
Two key reasons exist for promoting Ward might be the right move for Spurrier. First, it will foster continuity in a number of ways since most of the players on defense are expected to return in 2012.
If Stephon Gilmore decides to forego the NFL Draft, eight of the top 12 tacklers should be back next season. USC could have a senior-filled secondary with Gilmore and Akeem Auguste (missed all but one game in 2011) potentially starting at cornerback, and DeVonte Holloman and D.J. Swearinger likely starting at the two safety spots.
The latter duo has already vowed to return in 2012.
Ward has coached all four of those players since the opening snap of the 2009 season when Gilmore, Holloman and Swearinger were true freshmen.
As a result, a high level of trust has developed between those players and Ward, and promoting him to defensive coordinator will allow them the opportunity to deal with the same coach for their entire careers. In short, happy players make better players.
For the most part, Ward has done a pretty decent job in his first three seasons as secondary coach. Although 2010 proved to a difficult season, the Gamecocks have bounced back with a vengeance as they head into the bowl game with a No. 2 national ranking in both pass defense and pass efficiency.
The number of interceptions in 2011 (18) represent a new high for Steve Spurrier's tenure as head coach, while the passing yards allowed per game (133.0) represent a new low.
Clearly, the current players in the secondary like playing for Ward.
Granted, Ward has not called defensive plays in the SEC, but his familiarity with the scheme and the personnel should alleviate most of those concerns. He has worked closely with Johnson during the past three seasons and should be able to draw upon those experiences.
Also, promoting Ward will allow the USC defense to continue utilizing the 4-2-5 alignment as the base scheme, one that the current players are very comfortable running based on their performance this season.
Knowledge of the personnel should boost the chances Ward succeeds in his potential new role.
Not surprisingly, there is also a recruiting angle to promoting Ward to head of the USC defense. Ward has been the chief recruiter for four-star cornerback Chaz Elder and not promoting and/or retaining Ward could prove disastrous.
Clearly, his close relationship with Ward is possibly the main reason Elder will likely end up committing to the Gamecocks.
What about other prospects who have pledged or are thinking about pledging to USC?
Financially, promoting Ward to head defensive coach should prove a lot cheaper than hiring Mike Stoops or another so-called big-name coach. Stoops will probably demand a seven-figure salary as he awaits another head coaching opportunity.
No doubt, he would do a great job, as would many of the other candidates lined up to take the job.
But, in my opinion, Ward could do a great job as well at a lower price.
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