COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina linebacker T.J. Holloman likes having short-term memory, particularly when it comes to the Gamecocks dismal showing on defense last season.
Holloman said Friday that South Carolina defenders have put their problems in the past and approach the start of practice in less than two weeks with renewed energy and a strong commitment to improve.
Things couldn’t get much worse for the defense than 2014 when South Carolina blew three double-digit leads in the fourth quarter, turning a trio of certain victories into improbable losses in a 7-6 season.
“You have to go out there and act like it never happened,” said Holloman, who has started seven of the 26 games he’s played the past two years. “We know we have to go out and redeem ourselves and prove to world that we are a great defense.”
The Gamecocks did not sit still since the end of last year, adding Jon Hoke as co-defensive coordinator and bringing in several fresh faces to shore up a unit that was last in the Southeastern Conference with 14 sacks.
Junior college transfers Marquavius Lewis, Dante Sawyer and Ulric Jones, plus freshman Dexter Wideman are expected to add punch to the defensive line this fall.
Lewis is a 6-foot-3, 266-pound lineman who enrolled in January. He had 11 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss last fall at Hutchinson Community College.
In the secondary, the Gamecocks added former Kansas safety Isaiah Johnson, a graduate transfer who could play immediately.
Hoke oversaw a 4-3 alignment change in the spring that the players said worked well.
“Just trusting in the coach’s scheme is probably going to be the biggest thing this year,” said linebacker Skai Moore, the team’s leading tackler each of the past two years.
Holloman said the newcomers have fit right in and perked up returning players. “Everyone’s got the same spirit, there’s just more intensity,” Holloman said.
Intensity was something missing at exactly the wrong times last fall. The Gamecocks defense was coming off three stellar, 11-2 seasons led by All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney, the first pick in the 2014 NFL draft, routinely occupied several players on offense and opened gaps for the rest of South Carolina’s defensive line. The Gamecocks had no one like that last year and the problems showed immediately.
The Gamecocks were crunched in their hugely hyped season opener at home by Texas A&M, 52-28. Three weeks later, Missouri rallied from 20-7 down in the final seven minutes for a 21-20 victory. It was Kentucky pulling the upset the next week, scoring three touchdowns in less than 12 minutes to defeat the Gamecocks 45-38.
The most galling, at least in Spurrier’s view, came at home against Tennessee when the Gamecocks were up 42-28 with less than five minutes left when the Vols rallied to a 45-42 win in overtime.
Spurrier didn’t stick around very long at his postgame gathering, telling the media there was not much he could say before leaving.
The coach has made it clear he does not plan to go through that again. In fact, South Carolina’s longtime ball coach fired up his players with a 10-minute rant about the team’s “enemies” saying that at 70, he couldn’t coach anymore.
Spurrier answered back that he could still coach at an SEC level and will for a long time to come.
Receiver Pharoh Cooper said he had no doubts about his coach’s commitment. But the fiery words pumped up players even more for this season.
“What he says is pretty much right and we’re going to get to work,” he said. “We know our coaches are behind us 100 percent. New players, new defensive system, we’re a young team and a new team. We’re just ready to get out there and play.”