Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (SE, WR, LT, C, RG, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (LDE, LDT, ROV, RCB, LCB, FS, SS)
Returning Specialists: 0
Projected Overall Record: 10-2 (Ark, MSU)
Projected SEC Record: 6-2 (Ark, MSU)
Projected SEC East Record: 5-0
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Ex
Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Ex Defensive Backs: Ex
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Av
South Carolina employs Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun offense to the hilt, a pro-set-inspired version of a passing spread. The problem in the past has been a lack of depth among the skill positions and a lack of quality along the offensive line. Spurrier has fixed the problem at the skill positions, but depth issues along the offensive line remain. And whenever Spurrier is coaching, the quarterback position will remain in flux.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Vg, 1st SEC East, 2nd overall)
Stephen Garcia’s statistics have always been good. He threw for more than 3,000 yards in 2010 and 20 touchdowns. He completed 64.2% of his passes. So why is Garcia thought by some to be a liability? His decision-making, both on and off the field, has left something to be desired over the years. Garcia is eminently capable of looking like an all-pro one minute and a 10th-grade greenhorn the next. But he’s a senior, and experienced senior quarterbacks in the SEC tend to turn out OK. Connor Shaw has talent, and according to Spurrier is right on Garcia’s heels. He’s smaller, but a better scrambler. Andrew Clifford and Dylan Thompson are also in the mix, but it’s signee Tanner McEvoy who many fans want to see. McAvoy is a big-framed, athletic quarterback that could find his way onto the field at another position. Expect to see plenty of both Garcia and Shaw this year.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Ex, 1st SEC East, 3rd overall)
Marcus Lattimore had a stupendous true freshman season, rushing for 1,197 yards, 17 touchdowns and jumping right into the middle of the Heisman Trophy discussion in 2011. He’s bigger than all but one of the Gamecock fullbacks on the roster, fast and flexible. For the most part, he was durable, but averaged only 17.7 rushing attempts per game. That number will have to go up in South Carolina intends to challenge for more than the division title. Kenny Miles is a nice backup, but as a smaller running back, South Carolina will have to pick its spots carefully. Miles gets overwhelmed in the middle of the field. Eric Baker is somewhere in between Lattimore and Miles in terms of size and running style. Scatback Shon Carson is a true freshman who could get a look. The Gamecocks continue to de-emphasize the fullback position, but three players – two of them walk-ons – will be around when situational help is needed. Dalton Wilson leads Billy Byrne and Matt Coffee for the job. They’ll do nothing but block.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Ex, 1st SEC East, 2nd overall)
All eyes are on Alshon Jeffery, perhaps the only receiver in the conference who could have challenged Alabama’s Julio Jones for the title of most athletic receiver. His stats from 2010 are almost unreal: 88 receptions, 1,517 yards (17.2 avg.) and 9 touchdowns. Jeffery is weirdly built; he’s tall, and while thick, he appears to be a bit soft around the middle. But all he does is dominate cornerbacks and make catches no one thinks is possible. He’ll get help from D.J. Moore and a new starter at flanker, either Ace Sanders or Jason Barnes. Barnes and Moore are big receivers similar to Jeffery; Sanders is a 5’7” spark plug. Bruce Ellington, Nick Jones and DeAngelo Smith provide depth, but freshman Damiere Byrd may turn out to be the most electric of them all. The Gamecocks need a new tight end for 2011, and Justice Cunningham led the pack coming out of spring. Freshman Corey Simmons will back him up.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av, 3rd SE East, 6th overall)
South Carolina has done a good job developing starters, but depth is a question until there is some proven play coming from the reserves. Center T.J. Johnson and right guard Rokevious Watkins make a nice combo, and left tackle Kyle Nunn is serviceable. The problem is at right tackle, where Kaleb Broome is the most likely starter there, but if he struggles, Watkins could move outside and senior Terrence Campbell, the only experienced backup, would go to right guard. Watkins, though, plays best inside. Freshman A.J. Cann appears in line for the left guard position. Behind that group of six, there is nothing but questions. Ryan Broadhead left the team, leaving Travis Ford and Ronald Patrick to handle things inside. The reserve tackles are both freshmen, Brandon Shell on one side and Cody Gibson on the other. The Gamecocks are hoping for no injuries.
The Gamecocks run a 4-2-5 defense, which plays to the strengths of a deep, veteran secondary. But the front six is no slouch this year. South Carolina will have one of the best pass-rush combos in the conference, if not the country. The linebackers have plenty of experience, and there’s actually depth all over the place. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson likes to be aggressive, and he’s hit on something with his 5-DB alignment that other teams haven’t yet found. Still, the secondary needs to bounce back from an underachieving 2010.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Ex, 1st SEC East, 1st overall)
Things were already looking good with Devin Taylor and Byron McKnight at defensive end, and then South Carolina secured the signature of Jadeveon Clowney. Together, those three figure to do a lot of damage in 2011. Taylor was already one of the better pass rushers in the conference, and Clowney is expected to immediately boost the unit’s performance. Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson will start at tackle. Ingram can also play end, but he’s just as effective inside, where he’s quicker than most of the offensive linemen he’ll play against. Robertson has quietly developed into one of the SEC’s most well-rounded tackles. Backing them up are a pair of juniors, Byron Jerideau and Aldrick Fordham, and freshman Kelcy Quarles. Quarles has true star power. J.T. Surratt adds depth.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Vg, 1st SEC East, 2nd overall)
South Carolina only employs two full-time linebackers, but the Gamecocks have plenty of options. Rodney Paulk has seemingly been in Columbia for twenty years, as injuries continue to delay his career. He’s healthy for the first time in two seasons and will anchor the middle. Shaq Wilson also missed the bulk of 2010 to injury; he starts next door to Paulk. Reggie Bowens, Damario Jeffery and Quin Smith add depth along with Antonio Allen, who’ll also play the “Spur” safety position. The entire group is athletic, fast and will hit.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Ex,2nd SEC East, 4th overall)
This is called “rating based on potential.” Prior to 2010, most observers had the Gamecock secondary rated #1 in the conference. That was before South Carolina put up a season that saw the Gamecocks ranked 97th in pass defense and 87th in pass efficiency defense. Bigger things are expected. Akeem Auguste, C.C. Whitlock and Stephon Gilmore form a formidable cornerback trio, although Auguste is currently hobbled. Freshman Victor Hampton has opened a lot of eyes in the preseason, though, and should be good to go if Auguste cannot. The key at safety is the play of D.J. Swearinger, whose coverage and hitting abilities have made him one of the most feared free safeties in the league. The strong safety will be either Jimmy Legree or Corey Addison, most likely. The two were neck-and-neck in the spring. Sharrod Golightly and Brison Williams add depth. DeVonte Holloman will start at the Spur position, which is essentially a smallish, rover-type linebacker. Antonio Allen will rotate with him.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Av, 4th SEC East, 8th overall)
The loss of Spencer Lanning to the NFL means both a new punter and placekicker for South Carolina. Jay Wooten had the kicking job coming out of spring, while Patrick Fish figures to be the punter. Wooten is a transfer from North Carolina, but the job is far from his. Joey Scribner-Howard and Adam Yates are also in the mix. Michael Williamson is pushing Fish at punter. The Gamecocks will also need a new return man, as last year’s leader in the department, Bryce Sherman, didn’t return to the team after South Carolina apparently pulled his scholarship after signing too many freshmen. His loss leaves D.J. Swearinger, Ace Sanders, Damiere Byrd and Stephon Gilmore as the most likely applicants for the job. Kick and punt coverage figure to be good, but the overall return game could be improved.
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