If there’s one thing defensive coordinator Clayton White is used to during his time at South Carolina, it’s making adjustments on the fly.
The two-year coordinator has shown creativity in managing his at times injury-riddled defense. When the secondary faced a rash of injuries early this season, the Gamecocks found solutions in the form of freshmen like Nick Emmanwori and DQ Smith. The same held true for the team’s front seven after losing Mo Kaba and Jordan Strachan to season-ending injuries at the beginning of the year.
Now, White will need to get creative once more.
The 8-4 Gamecocks are gearing up to face Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30, and they’ll do so without several of the stalwarts on defense who helped get them there. Defensive lineman Zacch Pickens and defensive backs Cam Smith, Darius Rush and Devonni Reed all declared for the NFL draft, and the Gamecocks lost another key contributor with edge defender Gilber Edmond entering the transfer portal.
Addressing the media Thursday, White said he feels like his defense is prepared to absorb those losses, especially because players like edge Tonka Hemingway and defensive back Marcellas Dial have already flashed their versatility and shown a propensity to step up when players ahead of them went down.
“The way it kind of worked out is, upfront we’ve always played six guys a game. That’s our goal,” White said. “So really upfront it is what it is between Boogie (Huntley) and Tonka, Nick Barrett, T.J. Sanders and I think that we’ll activate another one of the freshmen, but for the most part we have the nucleus there.
“We lost Gilber obviously, so now Tonka’s gotta play multiple positions like he did during the year, which that’s not a surprise. At linebacker we should be good. Defensive backs obviously we lost Cam, we lost Rush. …. You saw Dial in the Clemson game kind of expand his role, and guys like DQ and Nick have to play multiple positions and make sure guys step up with their play.”
Without Smith and Rush, the USC secondary will especially have a different feel.
A true freshman, Emmanwori has found a home at safety for the Gamecocks after starting his career as a nickel corner, but expect both he and fellow freshman DQ Smith to be used in a variety of roles. Redshirt sophomore O’Donnell Fortune has seen his playing time grow throughout the season, and White said “he’ll have a huge role” in the bowl game. The Gamecocks could also look toward freshmen Anthony Rose, Kajuan Banks and others to fill some of those gaps, giving a glimpse at what USC’s secondary might look like in the future.
USC won’t be the only short-handed team. Notre Dame lost quarterback Drew Pyne to the transfer portal and tight end Michael Mayer — their top offensive weapon — to the NFL Draft, among other losses. Even still, White said he expects the Irish to play their physical, smash-mouth brand of football.
“They’re going to have the prototypical size across the front … so that’s the advantage that they do have,” White said. “They do have big guys, so obviously we expect them to try to pound it running, play-action and do what they do. They’re not going to change their entire identity because of us.”
White has shown a knack for changing things up when needed, during the season and often times during the course of games. Defensive halftime adjustments have been crucial in many of USC’s big wins in the Shane Beamer era.
“That’s one of Clayton’s greatest strengths from what I’ve seen being around him for two years,” special teams coordinator Pete Lembo said. “He plans extremely well during the week, but he also knows going in that you’re going to see new and different stuff.
“And his ability to make adjustments within the system — not draw new stuff in the dirt — but to pull within the things that our guys are comfortable doing and to go out there in the second half of the game and try to take away some of the things that may have been given us issues in the first half. He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around at doing that.”
For the Gamecocks to have defensive success against the Irish, White will need to do it again.
GATOR BOWL SOUTH CAROLINA VS. NOTRE DAME
- Who: No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) vs. No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4)
- Where: TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
- When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m.
- TV: ESPN
- Stream: via ESPN app/ESPN.com
- Line: Notre Dame by 2.5