South Carolina is trying to climb the ladder, specifically from novelty act to consistent winner in the SEC East. It’s a chore in Columbia, which is not one of the conference’s tradition powerhouse locations, and where the Gamecocks struggle to consistently build talent depth on the roster. This year’s team is replacing several key contributors on both sides of the ball, with the chief concerns being receiver on offense and cornerback on defense. And any time Steve Spurrier is coaching a team, the quarterback situation bears watching.
Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (FL, LG, C, TE, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (RDE, LDT, MLB, LOLB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 0
Projected Overall Record: 10-2 (LSU, UT)
Projected SEC Record: 6-2 (LSU, UT)
Projected SEC East Record: 5-1 (UT)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Fr
Steve Spurrier would probably like to throw the ball 100 times per game, but the changing nature of SEC defenses prevents it. As such, South Carolina has become a rather textbook pro-style attack in recent years, and enters 2012 with the intention of using more two-tight end sets. Despite Spurrier’s background as a passing guru, the Gamecocks have struggled recently throwing the football, finishing ranked 95th in the stat in 2011. Stability at the quarterback position, which is never assured under Spurrier, would be helpful.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Av; 4th SEC East, 7th overall)
Now that Stephen Garcia is gone, the depth chart will hopefully settle itself. Connor Shaw has shown flashes of potential the past two years and is now undoubtedly the man for the job. He is a dual-threat quarterback who excels mostly when he’s moving, and the Gamecocks must work on making him a more effective pocket passer. Shaw is also smaller than most quarterbacks, meaning durability will become an issue if he leaves the pocket too much. Sophomore Dylan Thompson is Shaw’s backup, and is more of a typical pro-style passer, although he, too, has good mobility. Andrew Clifford and Seth Strickland give South Carolina good depth, but no one besides Shaw is game-proven.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Ex; 1st SEC East, 2nd overall)
Getting Marcus Lattimore back and keeping him healthy is the primary concern here. Lattimore suffered a torn ACL in the middle of the 2011 season, and the results were predictable. Kenny Miles is a quality backup to Lattimore, but he isn’t Lattimore. There’s a Heisman campaign being built around Lattimore’s skills as a power rusher, and this is likely his last season in South Carolina. The SEC has no one else like him, really. Brandon Wilds and freshman Shon Carson add depth. Wilds is another big back like Lattimore, while Carson is a scatback. South Carolina will occasionally use a fullback, and the coaches have plentiful choices there: Qua Gilchist, Connor McLaurin and Kyle Madden.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Av; 4th SEC East, 9th overall)
The loss of Alshon Jeffrey hurts, primarily because South Carolina has few big bodies on the roster. The Gamecocks’ most effective receivers are smaller players like Ace Sanders, who is more at home in the slot but who is being asked to play outside. Damiere Byrd is similarly a sprite, and is in competition for the other regular starting position with 6’5” D.L. Moore, one of the few big options available. Nick Jones and Bruce Ellington are two more smurfs who’ll be added to the mix, along with a couple of average-height options, DeAngelo Smith and Shamier Jeffrey. The only other tall option is redshirt freshman K.J. Brent, who isn’t game-ready at the moment. Justice Cunningham is the team’s primary tight end, and the big question is whether South Carolina will lean towards starting three wideouts, a fullback, or an H-back, Ryan Anderson. Anderson is barely bigger than D.L. Moore. Freshmen Drew Ownes and Kelvin Rainey back up Cunningham and Anderson.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av; 4th SEC East, 8th overall)
The Gamecocks should be strong up the middle with center T.J. Johnson and left guard A.J. Cann returning as starters. The new right guard, Ronald Patrick, is a junior with plenty of experience. The question marks are the tackles. Sophomore Mike Matulis will start at right tackle, while left tackle goes to either freshman Brandon Shell or senior Corey Robinson. The coaches would like for Shell to take the reins. Depth is in decent shape, with senior Kaleb Broome manning the guard spots. The rest are mostly freshman, including Will Sport at guard and Kyle Harris at center. Sophomore Cody Gibson helps bolster the tackles. Shell will be the key to this unit’s success.
South Carolina turns its defense over to former Alabama special teams star Lorenzo “Whammy” Ward, although there won’t be much change from the Ellis Johnson scheme of a year ago. South Carolina an a 4-2-5 under Johnson, and still will in theory, although the Spur position will become more of a traditional linebacker slot than a third safety. Ward wants to remain aggressive, which means a lot of blitzing from a veteran linebacker group and safety unit. Seniors dot the depth chart at nearly every position, meaning this team will be a difficult opponent for anyone.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Vg; 3rd SEC East, 6th overall)
The defensive end combination of Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor is probably the best in the conference, or they at least don’t have to strain their eyes to see the best from where they stand. Taylor probably could have jumped to the NFL last year, but elected to come back for his senior season. Clowney, meanwhile, showed signs of living up to every bit of his recruiting hype. Inside, South Carolina will have to replace Melvin Ingram’s productivity with some combination of Kelcy Quarles, Byron Jerideau and J.T. Surratt. Freshmen Gerald Dixon Jr. and Phillip Dukes round out the depth chart inside, while veterans Chaz Sutton and Aldrick Fordham will back up Clowney and Taylor. Deon Green and Gerald Dixon (not the same player as Gerald Dixon Jr.) add to the mix. This is a deep group with talent to spare.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Av; 4th SEC East, 9th overall)
In terms of experience, South Carolina has five seniors in the two-deep. As far as effectiveness goes, there isn’t a bellcow in the group that is good in all phases of the game. Still, Shaq Wilson, Damario Jeffery and DeVonte Holloman should give South Carolina a group better than most the Gamecocks will face. Holloman is the new Spur linebacker, but he’s a different kind of player than Antonio Allen, who played there last year. Wilson is active and quick, but isn’t as big as most middle linebackers and he sometimes is out of position. Depth is good, with seniors Quin Smith and Reginald Bowens backing will Jeffery and Wilson. Holloman’s backup is Sharrod Golightly, who weighs just 180 pounds. If Holloman were to go down for any length of time, the Gamecocks would have to make changes in scheme.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Av; 6th SEC East, 11th overall)
In a deep year for secondaries in the SEC, South Carolina has the chance to beat this ranking if Akeem Auguste is able to stay healthy at cornerback. Auguste and Victor Hampton are expected to be the starters, with Jimmy Legree and Ahmad Christian the top backups. The Gamecocks lost Cadarious Sanders over the offseason, a big problem for cornerback depth. Brison Williams will start at strong safety with D.J. Swearinger at free safety. Kadetrix Marcus and Sheldon Royster back them up. Swearinger is the only returning starter in the group.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Fr; 5th SEC East, 11th overall)
The Gamecocks have weapons in the return game, with Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders among the most feared at their positions in the conference. Victor Hampton and Damiere Byrd will also get some work returning kicks. The kicking game itself, though, is in transition. Adam Yates is expected to take over at placekicker, while Patrick Fish or Mike Williamson will be the new punter. The punting competition figures to possibly last into the regular season.
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