COLUMBIA -- While the rest of USC's defense has elicited high marks, the Gamecocks' secondary has elicited little more than questions.
Is it unstable? Is it too young? Is it the weakness of an otherwise outstanding defense?
Those questions, junior cornerback Carlos Thomas said, are motivation.
"That makes us feel kind of good," said Thomas, who was criticized last year because of inconsistency and that he had zero pass breakups in 13 games. "That just makes us want to go out and work harder, get better. We know what we have in our secondary; we have a lot of talent. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised this season."
Opposing receivers might be surprised USC has no marquee defensive back. The Gamecocks, who have had six defensive backs drafted by NFL teams since 2002, have no player secondary coach Ron Cooper would label a "shut-down guy."
USC, which often relied last year on all-SEC cornerback Fred Bennett, now must take alternate measures against star receivers such as Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett and Arkansas' Marcus Monk. The Gamecocks must use speed, which it has plenty of, and sound fundamentals, which Cooper said remains a work in progress.
Thomas, whose poor fundamentals contributed to last year's criticism, said he spent the offseason -- particularly the months after being demoted to backup cornerback during the spring -- improving his focus and increasing his size. Those things, Thomas said, inflated his confidence, a lack of which the junior said led to his disappointing sophomore season.
Thomas said that other than Bennett, last year's secondary -- it allowed 190 yards passing per game, fifth-most in the SEC -- was young and inexperienced. It was uncertain of itself and failed to carve an identity or establish consistency. Thomas admitted part of the reason for that was because defensive backs relied too much on Bennett.
Free safety Brandon Isaac, who missed last season after undergoing preseason shoulder surgery, said the Gamecocks' secondary will be better without Bennett. Isaac said that pass defenses are better with several good defensive backs instead of one great player. Isaac, a fifth-year senior, said he expects big things.
"This is the best secondary I've ever been a part of," he said. "We're fast. We can play. All four (starters) are ready to play. What are we doing wrong that makes us weak? We're breaking on balls. We're catching interceptions. We're doing everything the coaches ask of us."
Which has included defensive backs improving their knowledge of the entire defense. Instead of learning individual assignments -- sophomore cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said he was required last year to know only his responsibilities -- players have since been told to learn how their position affects the defense and how they can be more efficient.
For example, Munnerlyn said that last year he only was asked to cover receivers and learn his position. A year later, Munnerlyn said he has learned to predict when a receiver will run a short route; he then can depend on a linebacker to pick up that receiver and help a safety cover another receiver's deep route.
"Last year, I just knew what I do," Munnerlyn said. "Now I know what the linebackers do, what the safeties do. I was just focused on myself. Now, knowing what everybody else does -- oh, man, it's going to be trouble."
Munnerlyn and the rest of the secondary have no shortage of confidence. Its other surplus is speed. Thomas and Munnerlyn agreed they are the Gamecocks' two fastest players; Thomas said they run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds. Secondary coach Cooper added an additional speedster to the equation this month when Mike West, a former outside linebacker and receiver, moved to cornerback. West, who Cooper said also runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, is expected to be an opening-night starter.
USC's defensive backs have learned to expect questions. What they do not expect is for the secondary to be the Gamecocks' weakness.
"We've got something to prove," Munnerlyn said. "We've got a good secondary this year. We know each other. We're really better this year."