South Carolina has been knocking on the door of national relevance for years, but Steve Spurrier hasn’t been quite able to get over the last couple of hurdles. Despite a growing talent base in the state, there has been too much competition for the Gamecocks to effectively lock down their backyard and challenge the SEC’s best teams. Time is running out for Spurrier, and this team, despite having plenty of talent, looks again to be just a bit short of matching up to Alabama or LSU.
Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (SE, LT, LG, C, RT, TE, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (RDT, RLB, LLB, ROV, RCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 11-1 (UGA)
Projected SEC Record: 7-1 (UGA)
Projected SEC West Record: 7-1 (UGA)
Spurrier’s pro spread attack has evolved many times over the years, and its current incarnation is one of the most heavily-dependent on the running game in Spurrier’s career. South Carolina might actually utilize a pure I-formation as its base, depending on how the new quarterback situation develops. And there’s always a quarterback situation developing under Spurrier.
After two years as Connor Shaw’s backup, Dylan Thompson now has the job to himself. Sort of. It’s never a sure thing when Spurrier is calling the shots, but the staff appears to have genuine affection for Thompson, who has been highly effective as a backup in the past. The question for Spurrier is whether he can accept having a game manager under center again rather than a playmaker like Shaw was. If – or when – Thompson gets pulled, redshirt freshman Connor Mitch will be the reserve likely to be called upon. The fans might want to hand him the job now, given the differences in recruiting pedigree between him and Thompson. Pharoh Cooper, a starting wide receiver, is also an option if Spurrier chooses to look for more athleticism. He’ll get Wildcat snaps regardless. Walk-on Perry Orth rounds out the group that actually has a legitimate shot at playing time.
Assuming Mike Davis is healthy – he’s been nicked up in fall camp – South Carolina won’t have any issues moving the ball on the ground. Davis has plenty of power and speed, and was not only the team’s leading rusher, but also its second-leading receiver in 2013. Brandon Wilds gives South Carolina a capable backup, with David Williams and Shon Carson rounding out the depth chart. The Gamecocks will use a fullback at least enough to need an actual depth chart at the position; Connor McLaurin will start ahead of Jordan Diaz. Both are seniors.
If Damiere Byrd is healthy, he has the potential to smoke opposing defensive backs. Byrd, a track star, averaged 17.4 yards per catch in 2013 and has few peers in terms of straight-line speed. Shaq Roland and Pharoh Cooper will be the other two starters, with senior Nick Jones the top backup. K.J. Brent and Shamier Jeffery are the next line, with Shaq Davidson and Deebo Samuel filling out the list. Tight end is in great hands should Rory Anderson be able to bounce back from an arm injury suffered in the spring. If he can’t, Jerell Adams will start with Jacob August the likely backup. This much talent will make the transition for the new quarterback relatively easy.
The left side of the line, namely guard A.J. Cann and tackle Corey Robinson, is a force, and right tackle Brandon Shell isn’t far behind in terms of ability. Injuries have hit the center and right guard positions, however. Mike Matulis was supposed to take the right guard slot after two years of shoulder troubles, but then hurt a knee. Cody Waldrop displaced returning starter Clayton Stadnik at center this spring, but then he was also hurt in fall camp. Stadnik will likely begin the season as the starter, and Brock Stadnik and Will Sport will compete for Matulis’ spot. Mason Zandi and Cody Gibson will back up the tackle positions.
The Gamecocks’ 4-2-5 alignment has been highly effective in recent years due to great player development at linebacker and defensive tackle, with some gold-chip recruiting at the defensive end and defensive backfield positions. This year will be a little different. South Carolina doesn’t have many household names on defense, and the rush defense in 2013 was a bit disappointing anyway. This team favors a blue-collar approach.
This is where the problems could begin to show. J.T. Surratt must become the go-to lineman; he’ll start at tackle next to sophomore Abu Lamin, a JUCO transfer for whom the sky is the limit. The defensive end duties will fall to Gerald Dixon and Darius English, both of whom possess a ton of potential, but also harbor the need for consistency. The backups at the end of the spring were mostly little-used veterans, like Mason Harris and Cedrick Cooper at end and Gerald Dixon Jr. at tackle. Sophomore Deon Green is also available inside.
The Gamecocks only play two of them, but they’re the strength of the defense. Skai Moore returns at the weakside position, while Kaiwan Lewis will handle the middle linebacker slot. The coaches have big hopes for Moore, who displaced starter Marcquis Roberts and isn’t looking back. Roberts will back up both positions along with Jonathan Walton. T.J. Holloman adds further depth.
The Gamecocks’ best defensive back is Brison Williams; where he’ll play is a mystery. Williams is a safety by trade, but the lack of experienced options at cornerback have the Gamecocks toying with the idea of moving him there. If he does indeed go to cornerback – and that’s the direction South Carolina seemed to be leaning heading into fall camp – Rico McWilliams will be the other starter, while Chaz Elder and either Kadetrix Marcus or T.J. Gurley will start at the safety slots. If Williams goes back to safety, he, Marcus and Elder will be the primary players for most of the year. Freshman Ali Groves and sophomore Jamari Smith were providing depth coming out of spring, but neither appeared ready to step into a starting role. At the Spur safety position, Sharrod Golightly returns, with Jordan Diggs as his backup. South Carolina treats the Spur position almost as more of a linebacker spot these days, despite the 4-2-5 alignment terminology. Ascertaining whether Williams can handle a starting cornerback assignment will be critically important the first few weeks of the season.
South Carolina is in good shape in the kicking game. Former walk-on Elliott Fry returns at placekicker, while Tyler Hull retains the punting position. Hull’s leg strength is a bit of a concern, but his directional kicking should keep him on the field regardless. Pharoh Cooper figures to handle much of the return game, although Damiere Byrd and several others figure to be in the mix.
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