COLUMBIA - Steve Spurrier arrived in 2004, and many South Carolina fans just knew the Gamecocks would win big. The Ball Coach's offensive mind, and track record, left them with overwhelming confidence.
Soon, they thought, their team would be putting up 50 points a game and Spurrier would be shooting from the verbal hip, stinging the rest of the league with wit.
Well, things haven't exactly panned out just that way.
Landing in the present - with the wait still on for the realization of sustained success - it's ironic that South Carolina is in position for big things primarily because of its defense, and not necessarily Spurrier's offense.
The Gamecocks were third in the SEC in total defense last season, just behind Alabama (the national champion) and Florida (which won a BCS game).
With eight starters returning, and all 11 starters (and several backups) having ample experience, there's a feeling that this South Carolina defense could be even better.
‘I think our defense has a chance to be as good, maybe better,' Spurrier said. ‘We've got a lot of good defensive players.'
Spurrier's second choice as a defensive coordinator, as it turns out, is a huge reason why.
After Tyrone Nix wasn't invited back following the 2007 season, Spurrier initially courted Brian VanGorder to be the next defensive coordinator.
VanGorder was introduced at USC. The defense was his.
But fate's a funny thing. VanGorder's good friend, Mike Smith, was hired as the head coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. VanGorder, who had just left the Falcons, was invited back to be the team's defensive coordinator.
In a matter of hours, Spurrier had shifted from VanGorder to Johnson, who had just gone to Arkansas to become the Razorbacks' defensive coordinator under new coach Bobby Petrino.
Spurrier had initially talked to Johnson, who is from nearby Winnsboro, about the USC job, but went with VanGorder. Spurrier later said he should have hired Johnson from the get-go.
The results indicate that Spurrier wound up with the right guy.
The defense went from ninth in the SEC in 2007 (378.1 yards a game), under Nix, to fourth in 2008 (316.5). It was third last season, at 300.7 yards a game.
South Carolina is fielding and recruiting better players, and they're being developed well by a coaching staff that now includes USC veteran Brad Lawing (line), Lorenzo Ward (cornerbacks, field safeties) and Shane Beamer (spurs, boundary safeties).
Beamer worked with Johnson at Mississippi State. Johnson and Ward go even further back, to the days when Ward played at Alabama while Johnson coached.
Ward later returned as a young assistant, taking over his Tide linebackers while Johnson missed time fighting - and beating - cancer.
Ward, entering his second season with the Gamecocks, says Ellis, plus the players, has things clicking at South Carolina.
‘Ellis has got a lot of knowledge with a lot of different schemes,' Ward said. ‘He does a good job with it. Having his experience and good players, it all works hand in hand.'
Outworking the next guy
So, what is it that makes Johnson successful?
Beamer and Ward, who have known and worked with him for years, are good sources for answers.
Both say it's a combination of on-the-job experience and exhausting dedication to the job.
Johnson is probably the most prepared defensive coordinator in the country, Beamer says.
He takes his laptop with him on vacation, much to the chagrin of his wife, Caroline. While most coordinators pass off the tedious assignment of breaking down and cutting up game film to grad assistants, Johnson does it himself.
‘We're getting ready to play someone on Thursday or Friday (before a Saturday game),' Beamer said, ‘and he's already breaking down the next opponent.'
So, when a gameday comes, Johnson becomes a prophet of sorts. He's able to regularly adjust his defense, depending on what he is seeing from the opposing offense.
Throughout the 2009 season, you saw it again and again. Injuries to some key personnel, especially the season-ending injuries to tackle Travian Robertson and linebacker Rodney Paulk, invoked Johnson's creativity with the scheme.
He's quite adept at on-the-fly adjustments - something a lot of coordinators struggle with.
It's something of a misnomer that South Carolina runs a 4-2-5 defense.
That's just the base. In truth, Johnson has his unit ready for anything. It can run a 4-3, a 3-4, a 3-3-5, and nickel and dime packages.
Offenses, in turn, are left adjusting to the Gamecocks.
‘We do a lot,' Beamer said. ‘There's a lot for an offense to get ready for.
We do a lot, but we're sound and simple in what we do.'
Seeing the empty
There have been unsubstantiated rumors of Johnson smiling from time to time.
Maybe even laughing.
That's an exaggeration, but only a slight one.
Johnson, 58, is a serious guy who is serious about his business. That's something the Gamecocks needed when Johnson arrived, Beamer said.
Say what you will about the iPod and Facebook generation, these players still listen to a disciplinarian like Johnson.
Why? They've seen him coach players to the NFL. They've seen him coach teams to titles. They want to be the next in line.
Johnson's coaching style may be a product of his playing days at The Citadel.
‘He's not a friend of yours, as far as player-coach relationship,' Ward said of Johnson, who later returned to The Citadel as head coach. ‘That doesn't mean he doesn't care about the players, but he's demanding. He wants things done the right way, all the time. I think that's what separates him from other coordinators that aren't as demanding.
‘It's all about respect. He gives them respect. They're going to respect him. His voice demands respect.'
A running joke around the staff is that Johnson is a glass-half-empty guy.
‘He's not the most positive guy in the world, in a lot of ways,' Beamer said. ‘But our players need that sometimes, too. He keeps things in perspective. He does a nice job of constantly coaching, never letting them feel like they've made it or arrived or got all the answers.'
Johnson nods as he's asked about the half-empty thing. He's fine with the perception. Just part of the job, to him.
‘You know, coaches are made to find problems and fix them,' Johnson said.
‘To me, I'm a glass half-empty (person). If the glass is half-full, somebody else has to fix the other empty part or maybe it won't get fixed.'
Survey the field. There's an All-SEC end, senior captain Cliff Matthews. Two up-the-gut run-stoppers in Ladi Ajiboye and Robertson. There are two smart, hard-hitting linebackers in Paulk and Shaq Wilson.
Then there's a secondary that might not be matched by any team in the country, much less the highly competitive SEC.
Sophomore Stephon Gilmore could be an All-American by December. Senior Chris Culliver and junior Akeem Auguste are flipping spots - Culliver to corner and Auguste to field safety - but Johnson and Ward feel like they are in good hands there.
The only new starter among them, sophomore boundary safety DeVonte Holloman, played quite a bit last year and is poised to have a breakout season like Gilmore did a year ago.
The Gamecocks are so good there that D.J. Swearinger, who would start for them any other year (and did last year), is a utility man in the defensive backfield. He can play all four spots, if asked.
But it's not as if this defense expects to just appear and have offenses roll over for it.
‘Just because we played pretty well the last two years has nothing to do with this year,' Johnson said after a recent scrimmage. ‘What this team does, this unit, remains to be seen. There's been a lot of talk about returning players, but there's some key people missing. Frankly, I haven't seen the chemistry or the intangibles of this group yet.'
Expect Johnson to keep working with them until he does. South Carolina has a fighting chance in the SEC this season, and its defense is the reason.
Reach Travis Haney at email@example.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).