By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth and Allen Sharpe
If you followed a few defensive players on the South Carolina football team around for a day, you might hear and see some strange things.
You might see them knocking things out of each other's hands. You might hear them yelling things like "tomahawk" or "chop" or "punch." It might seem like they have been watching too many action movies or westerns.
But when you watch them play, you realize they are preparing for what they do best on the football field, which is create turnovers.
And to defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson and his players, a turnover is not just a turnover.
"We don't just say, 'let's get a turnover.' That's not how we speak around here," Robinson said. "We name it, whether it's a tomahawk, whether it's a chop, whether it's an upper cut or a punch. We talk about that all the time.
"Our number one goal around here is the ball."
South Carolina had a much-improved defense last year, a big key to its surprising 9-4 season. The Gamecocks finished fifth in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing just 20.7 points per game, and finishing seventh in the conference in total defense.
A big part of the bend-but-don't-break unit was generating turnovers. The Gamecocks were second in the SEC behind national champion Alabama in turnover margin at +11. They finished with 28 total takeaways — 14 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries.
"Turnovers are a big part of our game," Robinson said. "We talk about it every single day, both sides of the football, whether it is protecting the ball on offense or taking the ball on defense."
Defensive line coach Lance Thompson says "our Bible in football is turnovers and we do it every day." Thompson has coached defense at Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and LSU and he says Muschamp's staff at South Carolina is as good as any at focusing on turnovers.
"We as a staff coach turnovers and creating takeaways better than any place I have been and I have been on some damn good staffs with damn good coaches. T-Rob does a phenomenal job," he said.
"Last year, it was a big difference for us. That La. Tech game, that interception down there was big. The Michigan game, those turnovers, a big deal. Turnovers and big plays, those are the two big indicators of success on a football game and we emphasis that a lot and the kids buy into that and it shows up in practice and it shows up in games."
Robinson has his defensive players so well trained that they look for turnovers even when they are watching film. If they see an opposing player carrying the football the wrong way, they call him "a violator."
"You will see a guy say, 'We missed a punch opportunity right there, coach,'" he said. "We won't say we missed a turnover opportunity, we missed a punch, so I know he is thinking what we are thinking. We always talk about it. You go around the facility upstairs by our meeting room, you have little footballs on a stick and guys ripping it out and doing things like that. It's important to our team."
With six starters returning on defense and several backups and young players ready to step into bigger roles, South Carolina expects to have a strong defense again this season. After Day 2 of fall practice Saturday, Robinson said he doesn't expect any major schematic changes but said the Gamecocks need to work on two key areas — the pass rush and third down.
With the return of players like D.J. Wonnum, Javon Kinlaw and Keir Thomas on the defensive line and senior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, Robinson is hoping his defense can generate an effective pass rush with four players instead of having to put extra rushers on the field or blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.
"We have to be able to get there with four guys, and we dang sure have the talent to do that now," he said. "We've got to come up with different ways to get to the quarterback with four guys so we can drop guys in coverage and sometimes get there with three. I've seen it done and I know we can do it."
The Gamecocks struggled on third down on both sides of the ball last season. Though the defense was fourth in the SEC in red-zone defense, it was ninth on third down, allowing opponents to convert nearly 40 percent of the time.
The coaching staff was so concerned about third-down defense last year that it had a staff member on the sideline during games jumping up and down with a sign that read "3rd Down!" The coaching staff came up with the idea after some players failed to recognize third down during practice.
"Everybody on the sidelines, everybody in the stands should know, it is third down, we have to get off the field," Robinson said. "I have never seen anything bad happen to a defense when they are sitting on the sideline. We have to get off the field on third down."
While the Gamecock defense was solid last season, Robinson said the next step is to be dominant.
"We want to be dominant in key situations," he said. "Third down is a key situation. … We have to play great in the red area. We have to force them to kick field goals. That is very important to our ball club.
"If we are dong that, if we are playing good third-down defense and we are playing good red-zone defense and we are getting the ball, we will have a really good defense."