Jaycee Horn is one of the most confident players on the South Carolina roster, often declaring that he and fellow corner Israel Mukuamu can be two of the best defensive backs in the country.
So naturally, Horn has little trepidation about facing No. 2 Alabama and one of the best quarterback/wide receiver combinations in the country Saturday.
“As a competitor, you always want to take on the best matchups. As a competitor, you have to want that matchup,” he said Tuesday.
Alabama features quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a Heisman candidate, and receiver Jerry Jeudy, the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s best wide receiver last year. Tagovailoa, who ranks second on Alabama’s all-time list for touchdown passes, was responsible for 48 TDs last season and has led the most prolific offense in Alabama history. The Crimson Tide averages 46.4 points per game with him under center.
Jeudy has 20 career touchdown receptions, second on the all-time list, and has scored in six straight games, the longest streak at Alabama in 20 years.
The duo is off to a great start this season in blowout victories over Duke and New Mexico State. Tagovailoa has thrown for 563 yards and seven touchdowns, while Jeudy has 18 catches for 240 yards and four scores.
Tagovailoa won the 2017 national championship game for Alabama before taking over as the full-time starter last year. South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp calls him an “outstanding player, very accurate with the football.” He’s also dangerous running the ball and throwing on the run.
“His ability to extend plays and what we call off-rhythm plays is pretty uncanny as far as his feel for when to run and when to throw it,” he said.
“He’s really good with his legs extending plays,” Horn said. “He has a good arm and he puts it where only the receivers can get it, and the playmakers around him make him look good.”
Alabama has a trio of explosive receivers, with Jeudy joining Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle to give the Tagovailoa one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the nation.
“They are all very talented guys who can run extremely well on the top end but also guys who in underneath coverages can catch the ball in space and make plays for them, and they have made a bunch in the last couple of years,” Muschamp said. “We have our work cut out for us as far as that is concerned.”
How do you defend that?
“Just stick to your man, have good guys on the backend,” Horn said. “They have a lot of double moves and have a lot of speed outside and Tua can extend plays, so stick to your man and don’t let him make plays.”
Horn and Mukuamu are complimented by freshmen corners John Dixon and Cam Smith, along with senior A.J. Turner, who is expected back from a thumb injury this week. The secondary got a boost last week with senior J.T. Ibe returning to assist R.J. Roderick and Jamyest Williams. Roderick and freshman Jammie Robinson usually handle nickel duties.
The secondary struggled in the season-opening loss against North Carolina, giving up 245 yards passing and two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. It bounced back last week, holding Charleston Southern to just 195 yards and intercepting three passes.
Muschamp, a former defensive backs coach, said the key for the group against Alabama is to be physical and aggressive on the line of scrimmage.
“You win and lose on the line of scrimmage. When you are able to win on the line and stay on top of a receiver … you win on the line,” he said. “When you play against guys like this … if you lose on the line of scrimmage, it may not be good if the quarterback sees it because it is going to be a vertical ball down the field. We have to do a good job of keeping guys cut off on the line of scrimmage.”
Horn, who was recruited by Alabama, can’t wait for the challenge.
“It gets me real excited,” he said. “As a competitor, you want to face the best. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you and you don’t need to be out there.”
After the season-opening loss, followed by last week’s 72-10 win over Charleston Southern, Horn says the game will give the defense a good gauge for where they are in Muschamp’s fourth season.
“We’ll know after this game,” he said. “It’s our hardest matchup of the season so its a good game to measure ourselves by.”