COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It's rabbit season at No. 6 South Carolina.
The Gamecocks (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) this season have used their "rabbit defense" of all defensive ends across the line to cause havoc for opponents. It's not every play, but with ultra-quick ends like Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, it doesn't have to be.
South Carolina defensive line coach Brad Lawing calls it the rabbit package because he feels defensive ends are faster and more athletic than defensive tackles.
But these rabbits aren't fuzzy or cuddly. They're aggressive.
South Carolina is second in the SEC with 15 sacks. Clowney leads the team with 4 1-2 sacks. The Gamecocks head to Kentucky (1-3, 0-1) seeking their school-record tying ninth straight victory.
"Those tackles hate it when I decide those athletes are going in," Lawing said.
Still, no one can argue with the results.
The Gamecocks, who ranked fifth in the SEC at stopping third down conversions with 35 percent, have lower that to less than 25 percent (14 of 59) this season. That means fewer opposing possessions and a big reason why South Carolina has given up less than 10 points a game this season.
"It's the truth," Lawing said of his unusual lineup of defensive ends. "Athletes are going in passing situations."
Lawing has tweaked the rabbit package since he got into college coaching at Appalachian State three decades ago. It depends on hyper-fast defensive ends who can quickly get past opposing linemen and end plays before they unfold.
Lawing will take out tackles Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau and insert ends Chaz Sutton and Adrick Fordham. All stand 6-foot-4 or taller. Then it's off to the races.
A year ago, the Gamecocks largely used the alignment with three defensive ends of Clowney, Taylor and Melvin Ingram, who had 10 ½ sacks and became a first-round NFL draft pick of the San Diego Chargers.
The scheme was perfect, Lawing said, for Ingram's speed and knack for disrupting things at the line.
This year's group of defensive ends has caused even more chaos.
Clowney and Taylor often require attention for more than one offensive player, giving Sutton and Fordham clearer shots to the backfield. Sutton's taken full advantage and has become, like Ingram a year ago, a defensive line surprise with his solid play so far. Sutton had a sack, another tackle for loss and forced a fumble in last week's 31-10 victory over Missouri. He's got three sacks on the season.
Lawing said the light came on for the fourth-year junior this offseason and he began to show the talent that only came in flashes before now.
"I've just dedicated myself more in the offseason and did the extra work that my teammates might not see," Sutton said.
South Carolina was one of the country's best defenses a year ago, finishing third nationally behind national champion Alabama and SEC champion LSU. But the Gamecocks had a change in leadership last December when coordinator Ellis Johnson accepted the head coaching job at Southern Miss. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier promoted from within, elevating Lorenzo Ward to coordinator.
Johnson was not a defensive gambler, choosing to bend at times while not breaking on defense. Ward said whenever asked the Gamecocks would do some things differently, including bringing more pressure when possible.
Dial up the rabbit package.
"We haven't been a big blitz team," Spurrier said. "We'll run some little stuff here or there occasionally, but we just try to turn those guys loose and let them play."
This week, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips cracked the NCAA should issue every team a pair of ends like Clowney and Taylor "to even things up," he said. "I would like to have Clowney and Taylor."
Jerideau, the defensive tackle, is not always crazy about giving up his time in the middle of South Carolina's defense. He's more than excited, though, when he watches the opposing offense jog off the field after another third-down stop.
"We've got some things to get better at," he said. "Once we do, we'll be as good as we can be."