A year after the South Carolina secondary surrendered an excessive amount of passing yards - finishing 10th in the SEC in pass defense - USC assistant coach Lorenzo Ward watched some of the same problems crop up in Wednesday's scrimmage.
On the first snap from scrimmage, the Gamecocks' offense scored on a 70-yard touchdown pass. A short time later, speedy freshman wide receiver Damiere Byrd again won the foot race with the defensive backs by hauling in an 80-yard TD pass from Connor Shaw.
It's the typical Catch-22 question that always crops up this time of the year as teams make final preparations for the start of the regular season: Does the offense get credit for making a great play or is there cause for concern about the secondary?
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Either way, Ward stood unhappily on the sidelines.
"Too many deep balls. We have to improve on that," Ward said on Thursday. "We started the scrimmage off with a 70-yard pass. We can't have that."
Containing Byrd and his 4.26 speed has proven troublesome for the secondary so far through the first 16 practices. They will get another opportunity at 10 a.m. on Saturday when USC scrimmages for the third and final time.
Yes, Byrd is fast. But Ward contends there are techniques defensive backs can utilize to defend against a faster receiver.
"You have to get out of your back-pedal early and understand that's part of the game, knowing your opponent," Ward said. "If he is faster than you, then you'd better get out of it early. If he catches a short pass, then let's go make the tackle. We can't give them six, so we have to be smarter than that."
Just like the offensive line looking to improve by facing USC's highly esteemed defensive line every day in practice, Ward hopes the same will happen for the secondary since it has to try to cover USC's deep wide receiver corps.
"Sure, you have a big, physical guy in Alshon Jeffery and we're going to play against big, physical receivers in the SEC," Ward said. "Then you have a speed demon like Damiere Byrd. If not the fastest, he's going to be one of the fastest guys in the SEC. If we can face that speed in practice, it will help us prepare for the game."
Akeem Auguste's return from an arch injury - he has yet to practice in preseason camp - should boost the secondary's talent level and provide the Gamecocks with much-needed additional depth at the cornerback spot.
With Victor Hampton suspended for the first three games, Auguste's presence for the East Carolina game is urgently needed considering his experience level (35 career games, 19 starts). He did some light running on the sidelines during Thursday's two-hour practice and his prognosis is encouraging.
"We have 15 days after today. Akeem has played a lot of football here and he will probably be ready by the first of next week," Ward said. "They ran him today. He hasn't worn his boot for a couple of days and he did some hard surface running today and in the pool. According to the trainer, he did pretty good."
In Auguste's absence, strong safety D.J. Swearinger has sought to become a better leader in the secondary. Swearinger loves to hit people, but sometimes, Ward said, his aggressive style works against him. Once he figures out a happy medium, Swearinger could become one of the top strong safeties in the SEC.
"D.J. takes pride in being physical, but D.J. has got to know that it is not always going to be a blow-up shot," Ward said. "He missed some tackles (Wednesday) that he shouldn't miss. He has to learn to come in balanced and not try to knock everybody out. But D.J. understands what we are doing on defense and it is his third season in the system. We fully expect him to do real well."
However, Ward understands the importance of intimidation in the SEC, so Swearinger's physical, hard-hitting style is important for striking fear into opponents.
"This game is mental and if you can intimidate some people by big hits, the receivers will think twice before catching the ball," Ward said. "I don't recall anybody striking a blow (in 2010). It is the type of game that I like to play, a physical football game. We want the ball and we want to get turnovers. You can set the tempo early when you do have a chance to blow somebody up across the middle."
DeVonte Holloman was recognized for his willingness to play a hard-hitting style, but he was shifted to spur linebacker in the spring. Assistant Head Coach for Defense Ellis Johnson has spoken in the past about possibly moving Holloman back to free safety if he had to, but Ward appeared to shut the door on that, meaning Holloman will likely stay at the second level of the USC defense."
When Brison Williams went down for the year with a broken arm, the USC coaches moved redshirt freshmen Sharrod Golightly over from strong safety and relocated freshman Kadetrix Marcus from spur.
"DeVonte will play spur," Ward said. "We feel decently good about the guys we have right now at free (safety). We moved Kadetrix Marcus back there and it will take him a few practices to learn what we are doing. He has shown some signs that he could possibly help us there."
Jimmy Legree is the projected starter at free safety and has played well enough to keep the spot for the season-opener in 15 days. Golightly is the top backup with Williams shelved for the season.
"He has done everything we have asked of him so far," Ward said. "He makes plays on the ball and he had a great interception (in Thursday's practice). Jimmy can be a playmaker for us. If you want to be a good free safety, you have to read the quarterback and break on that. You do that, you should get picks. That's what we expect of him.
"Sharrod is behind Jimmy right now and he is trying to play two positions, boundary (strong) and free safety. Right now he is playing behind Jimmy and Corey Addison is playing behind D.J. in the boundary."
At cornerback, the big three remain Stephon Gilmore, C.C. Whitlock and Auguste. Hampton's three-game suspension for academic reasons pushes senior Marty Markett into the fourth spot, and also creates an opening for a younger, less experienced cornerback to prove himself and possibly earn some playing time.
"We are still in the total evaluation stage," Ward said. "Ahmad Christian has done real well, but he has two guys in front of him that are seniors (Auguste, Whitlock). Martay Mattox has done real well. For Ahmad to get playing time, we will have to have injuries. I would love to redshirt him, especially having two seniors at the field corner spot.
"When Victor Hampton is healthy, he is pretty good. Marty Markett has done really well and so has Stephon Gilmore. We've got some depth at corner and that is something we didn't have last year."
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