Gamecocks Begin Spring Drills Thursday
March 3, 2009
Despite its second straight disappointing finish to a season, a sense of renewed enthusiasm exists at the University of South Carolina, as the Gamecocks get set for Year Five of the Steve Spurrier Era in Columbia in 2009. The influx of another strong recruiting class and a sense that the coaching staff has been upgraded in the offseason, gives Carolina fans hope.
In a program that has had only sporadic spurts of success through its first 115 years of intercollegiate football including just one conference title, this is arguably the most successful era in Carolina Football in history. The Gamecocks have:
* Won 28 games over the past four years, a feat that has been accomplished just one time previously in school history.
* Posted five straight non-losing seasons, the longest stretch since putting together seven consecutive non-losing years from 1928-34.
* Been bowl-eligible for five consecutive years, the longest streak in the modern era.
* A head coach that has taken his team to three bowl games, becoming just the third coach in school history to do so, while needing just four years to accomplish that feat.
Yet, the Gamecock Nation wants and expects more.
With their appetites sufficiently whetted, Carolina fans wait in anticipation for the program to take the next step. Only time will tell if that next step will occur in 2009, and the first tell-tale sign of that begins with spring ball.
Change will be the operative word for the Gamecocks as they embark on their 15 allotted spring practices.
Gone are five position coaches and the strength & conditioning coach from 2008. Gone are six players worthy of an invitation to the NFL Combine, including a trio of juniors, Jared Cook, Emanuel Cook and Captain Munnerlyn, who left with one year of eligibility remaining. Gone are veteran quarterbacks Tommy Beecher and Chris Smelley, who battled it out for the starting role in the spring a year ago but have since transferred to other schools. Gone is wide receiver Kenny McKinley, arguably the greatest pass-catcher in school history. And gone is strong-legged kicker Ryan Succop, who was a threat any time the Gamecocks moved into enemy territory.
Several things return that give the Gamecock faithful hope. Back is the experience of 40 lettermen - 21 on offense, 17 on defense and two on special teams. Back are a dozen starters - five on offense, six on defense and one special teams performer, who are used to the rigors of a difficult schedule. Back is an All-America candidate in linebacker Eric Norwood, the school's career leader in tackles for loss. And maybe most importantly, back is a reinvigorated coaching staff that is working together with a renewed emphasis to get the most out of the players that don the Garnet & Black.
With six new coaches and just seven scholarship seniors on board, this young and hungry team still has many questions, some of which will be answered this spring including:
* Is redshirt sophomore Stephen Garcia ready to handle the quarterback duties at an SEC-caliber level? The highly-publicized signal-caller got his feet wet in 2008, but with the departures of Beecher and Smelley, is the only quarterback on the squad that has taken a snap in a collegiate game.
* Who will win the backup quarterback role and push for playing time if Garcia goes down? A pair of redshirt freshmen in Reid McCollum and Aramis Hillary have an opportunity to make a name for themselves this spring and prove they are capable if called upon.
* Who will carry the pigskin? Coach Spurrier made it a point in the offseason that Carolina would make a conscious effort to improve a running game that was nearly non-existent in 2008. With Mike Davis moving on, a quartet of relatively untested tailbacks will compete for playing time and the bulk of the carries.
* Can the secondary, which has been in the top four in the country in each of the past two years in pass defense, hold its own following the departures of veterans Emanuel Cook, Captain Munnerlyn, Carlos Thomas and Stoney Woodson?
* How quickly will the players adjust to the changes made in the coaching staff? The staff gelling quickly and the players buying into the new way of doing things will be a key to maximizing the Gamecocks' performance on the field in 2009. Those and other questions will begin to be answered when the Gamecocks begin their spring practice schedule on March 3.
The Carolina offense features five returning starters, including three on the offensive line, but head coach Steve Spurrier has several holes to fill, especially at the skill positions. With Coach Spurrier putting more emphasis on improving the running game and only wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. returning to the staff on the offensive side of the ball, look for the Gamecocks to change some things up offensively. Eric Wolford has been brought in to coordinate the running game and has the task of developing the offensive line. G.A. Mangus (quarterbacks). Jay Graham (running backs) and Jeep Hunter (tight ends) will collaborate with new ideas to jump start the Gamecock attack that was 96th in the country in scoring a season ago.
QUARTERBACK: Everyone's eyes in the spring will be focused on redshirt sophomore Stephen Garcia. A heralded signal-caller when he stepped on the Columbia campus two years ago, Garcia has had his shares of ups and downs since his arrival. This will be his first spring practice and a big one for him, as he is the only quarterback in camp that has stepped foot on the field at the collegiate level. G.A. Mangus has been brought in to shepherd Garcia's development. Garcia was 1-2 as a starter in 2008 after completing 53.3 percent of his passes for 832 yards with six touchdowns but also with eight interceptions. He also is the squad's top returning rusher after carrying 70 times for 198 yards and two touchdowns last season. A pair of redshirt freshmen in Reid McCollum and Aramis Hillary will get plenty of reps in the spring as they try to establish themselves as a viable alternative to Garcia and solidify their standing as the number two quarterback heading into the fall. McCollum has the better arm, while Hillary is a better runner. The only other quarterback on the roster this spring is sophomore walk-on Zac Brindise, whose brother, Noah, played for Coach Spurrier at Florida.
TAILBACK: The Gamecocks will be very young at the tailback position in 2009 after relying on senior running backs in Cory Boyd and Mike Davis in the last two seasons. Also gone from last year's squad are Taylor Rank and Bobby Wallace, who both saw limited playing time during their Carolina careers. Coach Spurrier made it a point following the Outback Bowl that a concerted effort would be made to improve the running game in 2009. Exactly who will be the beneficiary of that renewed emphasis is unknown at this time. A quartet of relatively inexperienced backs, which has combined for just 84 career carries, will compete for playing time this season and all are looking to make a strong first impression with new running backs coach Jay Graham. How they fare this spring could determine if Graham will give the bulk of the carries to one player or if he will use more of a tailback by committee approach. Sophomore Eric Baker showed flashes at times last season and recorded the most rushing yards of the returning running backs with 182 on 46 carries. He also caught nine passes for 108 yards including a 42-yard reception in the Outback Bowl against Iowa. Junior Brian Maddox is the only other back with experience, as he netted 121 yards on 32 carries a season ago. He is the only tailback that tips the scales at over 200 pounds, coming in at a solid 224 on his 5-11 frame. Redshirt freshman Kenny Miles showed good speed on the scout team a year ago and will get a long look in his first spring session. Coveted recruit Jarvis Giles enrolled at Carolina in January and will also go through spring drills. Giles is regarded as having excellent speed and has the ability to elude tacklers, something sorely missing in the Gamecock running game in recent years.
FULLBACK: The fullback position is in the capable hands of junior Patrick DiMarco. DiMarco has worked his way into some significant playing time over the past two seasons and has the coaches looking at more ways to get him on the field. Regarded as an excellent blocker, DiMarco has carried the ball just one time in his career, but has caught nine passes out of the backfield for 77 yards and a pair of scores. Senior walk-on Dustyn McElroy is the only other fullback in camp.
WIDE RECEIVER: The Gamecocks lose one of the SEC's best receivers and arguably the top receiver in school history in Kenny McKinley. McKinley left Carolina as the career record-holder in nearly all receiving categories, including career receptions and career receiving yardage. As is the case at tailback, the Gamecocks will be very young at wide receiver in 2009. In fact, McKinley caught more passes during his career, a school-record 207, than the entire returning wide receiver corps has combined for (134) in their careers. Moe Brown is the only senior scholarship receiver on the roster. Brown has the speed to make the deep catch and showed he is more than capable by his seven-catch, 130-yard performance against Georgia last season, but still needs to gain some consistency. He is the top returning receiver, having caught 30 passes for 391 yards a year ago and has 52 catches in his career. Bigger things are expected from Jason Barnes, a 6-4, 199-pound sophomore. Barnes was a starter last fall and caught 27 passes for 346 yards, including 11 for 164 yards in back-to-back wins at Ole Miss and at Kentucky. Dion Lecorn returns to the offensive side of the ball after spending the final half of the 2008 campaign playing safety. He showed he was more than capable when he caught 27 passes as a true freshman. He also has scored five touchdowns, the most of any returning player on the squad. At 6-4 and 199 pounds, junior Joe Hills certainly looks the part, but needs to gain some consistency catching the ball after notching 11 receptions in 2008. Sophomore Matt Clements has the potential to be a solid contributor but needs to take the next step after seeing limited action last fall. Redshirt freshman D.L. Moore (6-3, 202) and Tori Gurley (6-5, 227) both worked on the scout team last fall and give the Carolina quarterbacks a couple more big targets to shoot at if they are able to crack into the rotation. Walk-on Stephen Flint may have the best hands on the team, and worked his way into a role as the holder on special teams. Walk-ons Scott Spurrier and Brandan Davis round out the receiving group.
TIGHT END: The Gamecocks lose one of the best in Jared Cook, a first-team All-SEC performer in 2008 and a probable first day pick in the NFL Draft. Junior Weslye Saunders is the only experienced tight end on the squad, but he is a good one. Blessed with good size (6-5, 280) and speed, Saunders could be a key part of the Gamecock attack in 2009, as he has shown the ability to catch the ball and is a capable blocker as well. He had three touchdown catches among his 16 receptions in 2008. New coach Johnson "Jeep" Hunter has only unproven talent behind Saunders. Sophomore Byron McKnight gets a look at tight end after spending his first two seasons at Carolina as a defensive end. How quickly he adapts to the position will dictate his playing time. Redshirt freshman Mike Triglia is another six-foot, four-inch target, but is a little light at 231 pounds. Junior Foxy Foxworth and redshirt freshman Andrew Power are a pair of walk-ons who add depth to the unit.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Former Illinois assistant coach Eric Wolford has been given the task of shoring up an offensive line that has caught its share of criticism over the past couple of years. Wolford will have to do without two fifth-year starters in Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorensen. Competition will be keen in the spring as Wolford starts with a clean slate and has indicated that there are no preconceived notions of starters and reserves entering the spring. While Wolford has the task of sorting through his unit to find the best five, he at least has an older group of players from which to choose. Two of the Gamecocks' seven scholarship seniors, center Garrett Anderson and guard Lemuel Jeanpierre, figure to have their name called when the Gamecocks open at NC State on September 3. Anderson has made 21 starts over the past three seasons, including all 13 starts at center in 2008. Jeanpierre came to Carolina as a defensive lineman but has two seasons now under his belt at offensive guard. He is the only fifth-year senior on the offensive side of the ball and is coming off a mid-season knee injury, but is expected to be back at 100 percent this spring. Junior Jarriel King also figures to be a good bet to get a starting slot at the left tackle position. King joined the Gamecocks in August of 2008 and held his own as he made the adjustment from junior college defensive lineman to left tackle in the SEC. At 6-5 and 312 pounds, King is more than capable of protecting the quarterback's blind side and could play his way into being an All-SEC caliber lineman. Junior Terrence Campbell was a pleasant surprise last fall, earning nine starts at guard. He is another converted defensive lineman. Junior Hutch Eckerson has started seven games in his Gamecock career, including five as a true freshman in 2006, and will compete with sophomore Quintin Richardson, a local product from Columbia's Spring Valley High School, and sophomore Kyle Nunn, for the starting spot at right tackle. Junior Seaver Brown, who started six games in 2007, and sophomore Ryan Broadhead will push Anderson at center and could also slide over to play guard, where they would face competition from juniors Pierre Andrews and Kevin Young and redshirt freshman T.J. Johnson. Former starter Heath Batchelor is not enrolled in the spring, but could return to the squad when fall practice rolls around.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson made such an immediate impact in 2008 that he was rewarded with a contract extension midway through his first season in Columbia. The Winnsboro, S.C., native figures to have the Gamecock defense clicking on all cylinders again in 2009, especially with the addition of Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward to his staff. Johnson felt so strongly about adding Ward as his top lieutenant that he gave him the defensive coordinator title, although Johnson will still be in charge of the defense. Johnson's troops ranked 13th in the nation last season after allowing less than 300 yards per game, but lost some key players, including safety Emanuel Cook and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who declared for the NFL Draft despite having one season of eligibility remaining. The defense will be led by All-SEC performer Eric Norwood, who eschewed the overtures of the NFL to return for his senior campaign and a chance to earn All-America honors in his final season in the Garnet & Black.
DEFENSIVE LINE: The defensive line figures to be one of the strengths of this year's squad. Defensive end Jordin Lindsey, who had the knack for making the big play, moves on, but everyone else is back. Veteran Carolina assistant coach Brad Lawing has two junior defensive ends in Cliff Matthews and Clifton Geathers, who may be as good as any twosome in the league. Matthews plays with a constant motor, while no one can question the pedigree of Geathers. The middle of the line will be anchored by fifth-year senior Nathan Pepper and junior Ladi Ajiboye, who may be the unit's best all-around performer. Getting Pepper back last season after missing much of the 2007 campaign with a knee injury, was a key to the significant improvement in stopping the run. Junior Travian Robertson, who started his first game in the Gamet & Black, is also in his third season in the program and rotates in the middle with Pepper and Ajiboye. Sophomore Melvin Ingram, who missed all of last season with a broken foot, has put on about 20 pounds and looks to find a home in the middle of the line after spending the 2007 season at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Kenny Davis hopes to make an impression and work his way into the rotation in the middle of the line, as does Devin Taylor at defensive end. Newcomer Chaz Sutton gets a jump on the other freshmen defensive end prospects by going through the spring drills. Walk-on defensive end Darantzy Brunson adds depth.
LINEBACKER: The Gamecocks will miss the run-stopping ability of all-league performer Jasper Brinkley and the consistent play of underrated Marvin Sapp, but should still be solid at the linebacker position this fall. All-America candidate Eric Norwood considered taking his chances in the NFL, but elected to return for his senior season. He is the SEC's active leader in both sacks and tackles for loss and is a two-time first-team all-league selection who should be on everyone's preseason "watch" list. Junior Rodney Paulk, who has started 22 games in his Carolina career, returns for his junior campaign after getting a redshirt season in 2008 following a knee injury. He is expected back at full strength and gives the Gamecocks an experienced starting tandem. Sophomore Shaq Wilson got his feet wet as a true freshman in 2008 and will compete with senior Gerrod Sinclair for the backup role behind Norwood. Junior college transfer Josh Dickerson enrolled in January and could push for early playing time. John Guerry is a veteran walk-on, and will be joined by walk-ons Darrien Davis and Dalton Wilson.
CORNERBACK: The Gamecocks may have their biggest holes to fill at cornerback, where Captain Munnerlyn, Carlos Thomas and Stoney Woodson combined for 74 starts during their careers. The Gamecocks finished fourth and second in the nation in the last two years in pass defense, so this year's group has the bar set high to reach that same level under new coach Lorenzo Ward. Competition will be keen, as both cornerback positions are wide open entering the spring. Junior Addison Williams has the most experience of the returning group. Sophomore Akeem Auguste began last fall at corner, but spent much of the season at safety, and now returns to the cornerback position. Talented sophomore C.C. Whitlock went through last spring as a wide receiver before making the transition to the defensive side of the ball midway through the fall. Redshirt freshman Jay Spearman sat out all last season with an injured shoulder, but should be ready to go this year. Many eyes will be watching the development of incoming freshman Stephon Gilmore, one of the more highly-touted athletes to step foot on the Carolina campus in recent memory. The multi-talented Gilmore will get a long look at cornerback this spring. Sophomore walk-on Cedrick Snead adds depth.
SAFETY: The Gamecocks lost a good one in all-league safety Emanuel Cook, who declared early for the NFL Draft, but still have some excellent talent at the free safety and strong safety positions, while the "Spur" role will most likely go to a more unproven player. Junior free safety Chris Culliver heads the unit and could be an all-SEC caliber performer this season after recording 60 tackles and three interceptions last fall in his first season on the defensive side of the ball. Darian Stewart, who played the Spur position last fall, slides over to the strong safety slot this spring. The hard-hitting senior was one of the unsung heroes last year, recording 64 tackles, including 9.0 tackles for loss and a team-leading eight pass breakups. Sophomore Alonzo Winfield gets the first shot at taking over at the Spur, a hybrid linebacker/safety position, in 2009. He will be challenged by redshirt freshman Reggie Bowens and transfer Tony Straughter, who was a first-team junior college All-American last fall at Georgia Military College. Sophomore Antonio Allen hopes to have made the adjustment to the collegiate level and will compete with Jarrett Burns for playing time behind Culliver at free safety. Newcomer DeVonte Holloman brings tremendous high school credentials to Columbia and will enjoy the benefit of getting the 15 spring practices under his belt. He enters the spring listed as a backup to Stewart at strong safety. Strong safety Blake Baxley earned a letter last fall for his work on special teams. Quan Earls is a walk-on who adds depth.
The Gamecocks showed some improvement in the special teams department last fall under the direction of Ray Rychleski. Rychleski took his ideas to the NFL, but Shane Beamer is a more than adequate replacement and will be assisted by Jay Graham and Jeep Hunter. Gone is three-year placekicker Ryan Succop, who also handled the kickoffs, but the other two parts of the placement team, holder Stephen Flint and snapper Charles Turner, return, as does punter Spencer Lanning.
PLACEKICKER: The Gamecocks lost one of the nation's best in Ryan Succop. Although Succop struggled at times in his senior season, he was certainly a threat every time the Gamecocks crossed the midfield stripe. Junior Spencer Lanning is the odds-on favorite to take over the placekicking chores, but that competition may not be decided until the fall. Lanning handled the punting duties last season and figures to do that as well in 2009. If Lanning does both, the Gamecock coaches would like to find another kicker to handle the kickoff chores, an area in which the strong-legged Succop excelled. The placement team returns with junior Charles Turner handling the snapping duties and sophomore Stephen Flint serving as the holder. Adam Yates is the number two placekicker in camp and drew some rave reviews from Rychleski last fall. Redshirt freshman Walker Inabinet, Chris Vaughn and Matt Grooms are the backup deep snappers. Scott Spurrier is the number two holder.
PUNTER: Spencer Lanning handled the punting chores as a sophomore in 2008 and could be a candidate for all-league honors this fall. He averaged 42.1 yards per punt in his first season handling those duties, ranking in a tie for fifth in the SEC, but three of the conference's top four punters were seniors. Redshirt freshman Eric Davis figures to provide depth. Charles Turner handles the deep snaps on punts.
KICK RETURNER: Chris Culliver has handled the kickoff return duties in each of the past two seasons, logging over 1,600 yards in the process and is just 300 yards away from becoming the school's all-time leader in that category. He was fourth in the SEC last season, averaging 24.1 yards per return.
PUNT RETURNER: The Gamecocks will be looking for someone to fill the important task as the team's punt returner after Captain Munnerlyn did the bulk of the work last season. Akeem Auguste figures to get the first shot at those duties with Dion Lecorn also getting a look in the spring.