After a comprehensive search to find its new offensive coordinator, things appear to have come together much more quickly for the Fresno State Bulldogs in finding someone to helm the defense.
First reported by BarkBoard's Josh Webb, the 'Dogs will bring in former South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to be the new DC under head coach Tim DeRuyter. He was dismissed by the Gamecocks after Will Muschamp's arrival in Columbia nearly a month ago, following a tough 2015 in which South Carolina finished last in the SEC in scoring defense and yards allowed per game.
Fresno State officially announced the hire on January 12.
"We are very happy to be adding a coach with Lorenzo's experience to our football staff," head coach Tim DeRuyter said in a prepared statement. "Lorenzo has a great passion for this game and mentoring young men. He has a wealth of experience, having been a coordinator in the SEC as well as having coached in the NFL. His experience will greatly benefit our team and I know that he is excited about becoming a Bulldog as we return to competing for championships in 2016."
More specifically, Ward spent last season as co-DC, according to his biography on the university's athletics site. His primary responsibility was run defense, so it may appear disconcerting, at first glance, that the Gamecocks finished 110th nationally in that regard, allowing 217.4 yards per game. South Carolina also had a 47% opponents' third-down conversion rate, one of the few teams in the country to have a worse such figure than Fresno State.
To keep things in perspective, however, the SC defense still allowed roughly 10.5 points and 20 yards per game less than Nick Toth's unit did in Fresno last season, which compiling the same number of turnovers (20) and roughly the same amount of tackles for loss (64, to Fresno State's 65). And it wasn't that long ago that South Carolina had one of the fiercest defenses in the nation, finishing in the top 25 in total and scoring defense four of the last seven years.
Before his time with the Gamecocks, Ward spent time as a secondary coach at three different programs: Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he doubled as the running backs coach; Virginia Tech, where five different cornerbacks earned all-Big East honors, two (DeAngelo Hall and Jimmy Williams) were All-Americans, and his defensive backfields helped the Hokies rank in the top 10 for interceptions from 2000-2002; and Arkansas.
His work as a recruiter is also fairly notable: Ward was credited as being "instrumental" in bringing former All-American and NFL first-round running back Kevin Jones to Blacksburg during his time there. He also brought current San Francisco 49ers running back Mike Davis to Columbia, though promising three/four-star talent like linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams and wide receivers D.J. Neal and Terry Googer may also carve out bigger roles in the years to come. Another 2016 four-star recruit, Jordan Smith, decommitted from South Carolina and cited Ward's dismissal as a substantial reason for doing so.
To this end, the accelerated timetable for identifying Toth's replacement should take some of the sting out of losing Marcus Woodson since, as Webb notes in his own take on the impending hire, National Signing Day is a month away. The former secondary coach, who will be a part of Memphis's coaching staff in 2016, was considered one of the best recruiters on staff and should receive some credit for unearthing Tyquwan Glass as a playmaker.
For more insight into Ward's history with the Gamecocks and what the hire means to the Bulldogs, though, we reached out to SB Nation's South Carolina blog, Garnet and Black Attack, and spoke to Richard Avant:
Mountain West Connection: Last year was one I'm sure a lot of South Carolina fans would like to forget quickly, as things never really seemed to come together after a season-opening win against what turned out to be a very good North Carolina team. Steve Spurrier's midseason departure rightfully grabbed headlines, but what happened with the Gamecocks defense that, two years earlier, was one of the best in the nation?
Avant: After Ellis Johnson's departure in 2011, Lorenzo Ward was promoted to defensive coordinator, a title he'd shared with Johnson previously, though he didn't have Johnson's authority. On paper, he was a co-DC with Johnson, but Johnson ran the defense and called the plays. Later, as the head of the defense, Ward benefitted from the talent brought in by other coordinators like Johnson, and was able to field some solid defenses for two years with top level talent that included Jadeveon Clowney and Melvin Ingram.
Once he had full reins of the defense and had to replace talents like Clowney and Ingram, the wheels fell off. He took chances on too many undersized defensive ends that he thought could be developed into speed rushers and project defensive backs who weren't recruited by any other SEC programs. He was never able to bring in good enough talent to run his defense with and it's a major problem that new Gamecock head coach Will Muschamp will have to overhaul.
MWC: In the last few years, former Fresno State defensive coordinator Nick Toth helmed an athletic and aggressive 3-4 defense that thrived on getting into the backfield and generating turnovers, even while allowing a substantial share of big plays. It worked, then the results became uneven (depending on what measures you look at), which cost Toth his position. Should Bulldogs fans expect something different from Ward? How did his defenses want to contend with SEC talent during his time in Columbia?
Avant: Absolutely, Bulldogs fans should expect something different. While at South Carolina, Lorenzo Ward ran a 4-2-5 defense that utilized a hybrid safety/linebacker to make plays on the field. It was called the "Spur" position here, it was implemented by Johnson, and its responsibilities varied from covering receivers to rushing the quarterback to stopping the run. Again, he really benefitted from the talent brought in by other staff members, and when those staff members departed and it was his responsibility to restock the talent, it fell off.
In 2014, one year after producing the first pick in the NFL Draft, Clowney, South Carolina dropped to last in the league in sacks and ranked 110th ranked nationally. The talent level was so depleted that Ward started running multiple sets on defense to try and find the best fit for the talent at hand, one being the 3-4, and it made Kenny Hill, who was at Texas A&M at the time, a Heisman candidate in Week One of that season.
I would expect him to go back to what worked for the first few years of his tenure at South Carolina, the 4-2-5 that emphasizes getting after the quarterback aggressively. It wouldn't surprise me, however, to see him change his defensive philosophy considering how bad it went so quickly at South Carolina.
MWC: Ward's resume appears to indicate a knack for getting the most of a defensive backfield but, in parsing through the numbers from 2014 and 2015, it appears that Fresno State and South Carolina had similar troubles stopping the run (though Fresno's first half/second half splits are much more pronounced) and getting off the field. How much responsibility does Ward bear for those struggles, especially since he was the co-DC in charge of rush defense last year?
Avant: The 2015 struggles were an accumulation of recruited players who had zero business being in the SEC, as stated above. Jon Hoke, who was Steve Spurrier's DC at Florida from '99-'01, was brought in to help run a defense that showed no promise for the future in 2014. The talent level was just so depleted from Ward's tenure from 2011-2014 that it was something that could not be fixed overnight. It's an issue that South Carolina is currently having to deal with. There wasn't one position group that brought down the South Carolina defense: It was all across the board, players who just weren't good enough, and that rests solely on the man in charge of that side of the football, Lorenzo Ward.
MWC: How would you characterize Ward as a recruiter? His departure from SC, at a glance, appeared to motivate one athlete to flip his commitment to an SEC East rival.
Avant: Lorenzo Ward has a great reputation with many high schools in the Atlanta area. He is very well-liked and well-known in those parts, and it was his main recruiting area outside of the state of South Carolina. Even up to his final year at South Carolina, he was always able to tap into the state of Georgia and get a highly recruited player. The problem was, though, he couldn't field a competitive SEC defense simply by recruiting the state of Georgia.
I will say that Lorenzo does a good job at building relationships with recruits. He has some guys on the South Carolina team today that still have his back and will speak highly of him. He will need to make his presence known in the recruiting areas familiar to Fresno State, something I fully expect him to accomplish.
MWC: Given that there's a great deal at stake for the Bulldogs in 2016, what do you think of the hire?
Avant: I don't understand it for Fresno State or Lorenzo Ward. Lorenzo Ward's reputation and connections to Atlanta and the state of Georgia at large are something from which the school will benefit, but while Ward now gets to try and get back on his feet as a defensive coordinator, he has to do it in area he has never recruited with no reputation all the way across the country.
Presumably, he's also going to implement that 4-2-5 scheme for a group of players built to run a 3-4. What this means is that Lorenzo Ward is going to have to show he can recruit players for his system, something he couldn't do at South Carolina. He has a large task ahead of him, a challenge that he has yet to show he can successfully complete.
Maybe it's a good thing for him, since it serves as a reset button and he can change his ways. The only benefit I see for Fresno State is that he coached against the best talent in the SEC, so he knows what it's like at a higher level of competition. Other than that, you're either getting a guy that's going to try the same stuff he did at South Carolina or a guy who changes his defensive ways, which means everything he tries to implement will be new to him and to Fresno State, which is an uncertainty that wouldn't make me feel confident as a fan.