Jeep Hunter can read numbers. And one statistic he didn't like after assuming the role of safeties coach for South Carolina was the Gamecocks' No. 10 ranking in the SEC in pass defense last season.
Hunter, along with Lorenzo Ward and Ellis Johnson, set out during the offseason to plot a different course that minimizes the number of positions a particular player must learn.
Specialization, they hope, will result in fewer blunders by the Gamecocks secondary, which struggled in 2010 with chemistry, communication and data overload.
"If you're going to play boundary safety, play boundary safety. If you're going to play free safety, play free safety," Hunter told reporters Friday night. "There will be some adjustments. The one thing we are trying to do is make sure they know their assignments at their positions. We're trying not to overload them with a lot, even if we have to cut back with some of the things we're giving them from week to week. We want to make sure our guys line up and play solid football."
Despite last year's difficulties, the secondary group was, individually, one of the more talented in the SEC. But, for some reason, things didn't click. Most of the same players are back in 2011 and this time Hunter expects better results.
"We feel like we've got a pretty talented group, and we just want them to line up and go play," Hunter said.
Barring an injury or something else unforeseen, D.J. Swearinger will start at strong (boundary) safety and will be backed up by freshman Brison Williams, Hunter said. Swearinger was a workout warrior over the summer and he has sustained that momentum through the early stages of preseason camp.
Jimmy Legree has been able to hold onto the starting job at free safety and is being backed up by Sharrod Golightly.
"Right now, we are very positive with the direction those young men are headed," Hunter said. "They're continuing to progress. We'll be OK. The biggest key is they're learning their assignments and continuing to play hard."
Redshirt sophomore Corey Addison suffered a hamstring injury early in the spring and missed valuable practice time. As a result, he is scrambling to catch up after going into the spring looking to establish himself as one of the front-runners at the strong safety spot.
Now, Swearinger has locked down the strong safety position and Addison is competing with a pair of freshmen for a coveted spot on the depth spot.
"Hopefully, he will continue to come on and develop," Hunter said. "He's shown some bright spots. If he continues to progress, he'll have a chance."
Freshman Sheldon Royster, nursing a shoulder injury, took off the yellow jersey on Friday night and got his first taste of contact in the SEC. Hunter said Royster, a four-star prospect, is working as the third-team free safety and strong safety.
"Sheldon Royster is playing quite well," Hunter said. "I know he still has a ways to go, but he's doing some good things out there. He looks just like any freshman back there would at this time. He's doing some good things, but he's also making mistakes. We're pleased where he is right now. With his shoulder, we're taking it one day at a time. We'll do what our trainers tell us to do."
If the free safety spot doesn't develop the way the coaches hope, moving DeVonte Holloman there from Spur remains an option. But Ellis Johnson has frequently mentioned he prefers to keep Holloman at the second level closer to the line of scrimmage.
"That's the way things still stand right now," Hunter said.
At cornerback, Stephon Gilmore is entrenched at one spot (boundary corner). Defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Lorenzo Ward told reporters he wants Gilmore to work on his "explosion" during preseason camp.
"He got beat on a couple of double moves last season," Ward said. "That's what people are going to attack him with this year. He's doing a lot of good work in different drills for double moves. If he gets better at that, he will improve his game. We want him to stay aggressive. But his eyes play a big factor in that. When you look at the quarterback, the receiver could be taking off."
On the opposite side at field corner, projected starter Akeem Auguste remains sidelined by an arch injury that makes it extremely difficult for him to run without pain.
"According to the trainer, he's getting better," Ward said. "If he continues to improve, he'll probably be back early next week."
Auguste's injury has opened the door for some younger cornerbacks like Victor Hampton, Cadarious Sanders, Martay Mattox, Kadetrix Marcus and Ahmad Christian to procure a greater number of practice snaps, accelerating their development.
"We're seeing a lot of the young guys develop and learn what we do," Ward said. "We gave them a lot of different defenses that we've installed. They're picking up the knowledge of those. Victor Hampton has had a great few days of practice. He's done well. Overall, I've been impressed with the younger guys and what they've brought to the table. The older guys know we have a lot of competition."
Marcus is currently playing cornerback, but looking down the road his best position could be safety, Ward said.
"We want to start him outside first and if we have to we'll move him inside," Ward said.
Like several other positions in the front seven on defense, the entire secondary has been bolstered by the enhanced competition, Ward said.
"We're stronger and faster than any time I've been here," Ward said. "We have a lot more competition. When you have competition it makes everybody better."
Overall, Hunter, serving his first season as safeties coach, is pleased with the direction his players are headed, although 25 practices remain until the 2011 season opener.
"We've made progress and we will continue to make progress," Hunter said. "I like the way our guys are playing fast and playing hard. There's competition back there in the three-deep at safety. If we make a mistake, make it going full speed and we'll the corrections."
Ward hopes USC's young defensive backs follow the example set this summer by Swearinger.
"D.J. had a great summer and won a lot of awards in the weight room," Ward said. "He's been a leader. He understands what we're doing on defense. He's been a big, physical tackler and he has good hands. He can play the ball. We expect D.J. to have a big season."
UPDATED SECONDARY DEPTH CHART
Cornerback - STEPHON GILMORE, Victor Hampton, Cadarious Sanders;
Strong Safety - D.J. SWEARINGER, Brison Williams, Sheldon Royster;
Free Safety - JIMMY LEGREE, Sharrod Golightly, Sheldon Royster;
Cornerback - AKEEM AUGUSTE, C.C. Whitlock, Martay Mattox, Marty Markett.
(Starters in caps)
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