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Ward proving to be a home run hire

Have any lingering questions about Lorenzo Ward been adequately answered?

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward

Ward was promoted to be South Carolina’s defensive mastermind when former assistant head coach Ellis Johnson departed for Southern Miss in late December. While Ward was the defensive coordinator since his arrival to Columbia in 2009, he was only that in title. It was Johnson’s defense.

Ward had never been a coordinator at the major college level when head coach Steve Spurrier tabbed him to take over for Johnson, who led the Gamecocks to the third-ranked defense in the country in 2011. In his four years, Johnson put a Top 15 defense on the field three times and had the Gamecocks known nation wide on the defensive side of the ball despite the fact Spurrier was the head coach.

With Johnson, the Head Ball Coach could focus on the offensive side of the football and not have to worry about what was happening on the other side. With Ward, would it be the same way?

There were skeptics. Even after the defense limited Nebraska to 13 points and 253 yards of total offense in the Capital One Bowl, some were still unsure just how Whammy, as he’s affectionately known, would handle life in the SEC when he didn’t have multiple weeks to prepare for each game.

Could he make in-game adjustments be in the heat of battle? Could he coordinate the defense from the sideline? Could he make changes week in and week out to teams with varying styles of offenses?

The answer to every question is a resounding yes.

Entering the Georgia game, the Gamecocks were ranked third in the conference in yards allowed per game but were 60-plus yards behind LSU and allowed nearly 100 yards per game more than Alabama.

The tasks that South Carolina has faced this year have not been overly daunting but Ward was leading his group into their biggest test of the year going against Georgia. The Bulldogs, the fifth-ranked team in the country, led the league in points per game (48.2) and total offense (538.0 yards per game).

Former cornerback Stephon Gilmore was coached by Ward from the day he stepped onto campus. He blossomed into a first-round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills.

Georgia entered the game with a veteran quarterback who led the SEC in passing efficiency. The Bulldogs (5-1, 3-1) sported the league's top rusher.

If questions still lingered about Ward and his coordinator ability, he had yet another chance to answer them on Saturday night and really put a stamp on his defense being one of the best in the country.

“We didn’t know the defense would be as effective as we were,” Spurrier said after the 35-7 throttling of Georgia. “We thought we could play with them. Coach Ward had a good feeling going into the game.”

Ward, just like he has since officially taking over as defensive coordinator in the final week of December 2011, knew what he was talking about; his feeling was right.

He called an aggressive defense early with a lot of man-to-man coverage and a few pressure packages. His calls worked as the Bulldogs could manage only 39 yards in the first quarter. Holding a 21-0 lead after the first 15 minutes, Ward made an adjustment and played a little bit more zone to keep from giving up the big play.

The Gamecocks, which moved to 6-0 and 4-0 in the Southeastern Conference with the win, didn’t go into a shell on defense. Linemen kept getting to the quarterback, linebackers kept making their tackles, and members of the secondary covered their receivers like a blanket.

The defense, under Ward’s guidance, played all 60 minutes at a high level.

“When I talk defense with him, we’re right there together,” Spurrier said earlier this week. “It was obvious the players really love the guy and play for him. He’s got a bright future as a D-coordinator and maybe a head coach some day.”

Through six games, opponents are averaging 10.5 points per game and 278.0 yards of total offense. Alabama ranks first in the league giving up just 7.0 points per game but South Carolina is more than holding its own.

“I believe in the young men I coach every day,” Ward said. “We believe in the system that we run. We believe we can play with anybody if we do the little things. We have to get lined up, run the football, and we have to tackle. There’s nothing special about playing defense other than it’s 11-on-11. You have to fit the run right and we try to keep it simple. We continue to get better at it.”

Ward believes in his players and his players believe in him. Spurrier has noted several times just how much the guys on the field trust the first-year coordinator and the group has responded.

As good as Johnson was for the program, miscommunication and assignment errors hampered the team at times. Ward has simplified the defense and wants to attack. Players thrive on that and, so far, it has shown in the results.

Spurrier has believed in Ward from Day 1 but there were always some detractors. People questioned the hire and whether Spurrier was settling on a candidate that may not be quite the best available.

As wins mounted and the defense continued to put forth great performances week after week, Ward started to gain some national acclaim. After his team shut down the top offense in the SEC, any lingering questions about Ward have surely been answered.

Want to read more about Ward? Take a look back at our three-part series on his promotion.

More on Lorenzo Ward

Everybody loves Whammy - He’s a competitor, he demands a lot from his team, but his players love him.

Peers respect Ward’s knowledge - Coaches from across the landscape of college football talk about Ward and what he will bring to the table as South Carolina’s defensive coordinator.

Quotables: More on Ward - Gene Stallings, Steve Spurrier, Frank Beamer, Shane Beamer, and Ward all talk about the move from defensive assistant to defensive mastermind.

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