Football Spring Preview
March 4, 2010
With 54 lettermen including 17 starters returning from a team that posted wins over fourth-ranked Ole Miss and in-state rival Clemson, South Carolina fans are optimistic about their team's fortunes in 2010. The Gamecocks lost just 11 letterwinners off last year's 7-6 squad, of which only seven saw significant playing time, giving head coach Steve Spurrier one of his more experienced squads as he begins his sixth season in Columbia.
While some may be disappointed that South Carolina has been unable to put together a "magical" season in which the Gamecocks challenge for the SEC Eastern Division title, there is little doubt that Carolina is enjoying one of its most successful eras in school history. Since Coach Spurrier's arrival, the Gamecocks have:
* Had back-to-back senior classes leave with a school-record 28 victories in their four-year careers. Twenty-eight wins over a four-year period had happened just once previously (1987-90).
* Put together back-to-back seven-plus win seasons for just the sixth time in school history. The others: 1924-25; 1979-80; 1987-88; 2000-01; and 2005-06.
* Posted six straight non-losing seasons, the longest stretch since putting together seven consecutive non-losing years from 1928-34.
* Been bowl-eligible for six consecutive years, the longest streak in the modern era.
* A head coach that has taken his team to four bowl games, becoming the first coach in school history to do so, while needing just five years to accomplish that feat.
* Defeated the fourth-ranked team (Ole Miss) in the country in 2009, only the second time Carolina has knocked off a top-5 ranked squad. * Put together a Rivals.com top-25 recruiting class for six straight years.
* Developed a distinctive home field advantage. The Gamecocks protected their house by winning six of seven games at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2009. It was their best home mark since posting a 6-1 record at home in 1988.
* Posted a team GPA of 2.695 during the Fall 2009 semester, the highest GPA on record.
Several questions will need to be answered if the Gamecocks are to make a run at their first Southeastern Conference title in 2010. While some of those questions may be resolved in the spring, others may not be fully answered until the fall. Some of the more pertinent questions are:
* Now that junior quarterback Stephen Garcia has been through the SEC wars for an entire season, is he ready to make the jump to become one of the league's elite signal-callers? Entering the 2010 season, Garcia is the SEC's active leader in career total offensive yardage (4,078) and passing yardage (3,694).
* With the departure of little-used backup quarterback Reid McCollum, who is next in line should Garcia go down? Can touted freshman Connor Shaw challenge Zac Brindise, Aramis Hillary and Andrew Clifford for that No. 2 role?
* How will the offensive line develop under coach Shawn Elliott, the unit's third coach in as many seasons? Will a solid starting five emerge from the spring or will those battles continue throughout the fall?
* Will we see more of the "Wildcat" formation run by Stephon Gilmore that proved so effective in the 34-17 win over Clemson?
* Who will step up and become the playmakers on defense to replace All-American Eric Norwood, the school's all-time leader in sacks and tackles for loss?
* With so many of the defensive regulars sitting out the spring due to injuries, which backups will make the most of their opportunities and make a case for more playing time in the fall?
Those and other questions will begin to be answered when the Gamecocks open their spring practice schedule on Thursday, March 4. The allotted 15 practices will wrap up with the annual Garnet & Black Spring Game on Saturday, April 10.
The Carolina offense officially returns eight starters, but can boast as many as 13 players that started five or more games during the 2009 campaign. With the exception of wide receiver Moe Brown, all of the skill position players return, including quarterback Stephen Garcia and Freshman All-American wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Shawn Elliott takes over as the offensive line coach, the unit's third coach in as many seasons. He brings a little of the successful Appalachian State spread offense scheme with him, which hopefully will make the attack a little more formidable. Overall, the Gamecocks return 93 percent of their rushing yards, 99 percent of their passing yards and 83 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago.
QUARTERBACK: With a full season under his belt, junior quarterback Stephen Garcia needs to take the next step to become a leader on the squad and establish himself as one of the SEC's top signal-callers. Garcia has all the tools to be successful and is the league's active leader in career passing yards. He is 8-8 in his career as a starter and has passed for 3,694 yards and 23 touchdowns in his career while completing 55 percent of his passes. Other than Garcia and Stephon Gilmore, who saw very brief action in the Wildcat formation late in the season, no other player on the roster has taken a snap from center in the Garnet & Black. Former walk-on Zac Brindise, whose brother, Noah, played for Coach Spurrier at Florida, has been around the program the longest of the backups and enters the spring second on the depth chart. Sophomore Aramis Hillary and redshirt freshmen Andrew Clifford will both get a look in the spring to challenge Brindise, but they will also have to hold off true freshman Connor Shaw, who enrolled at South Carolina in January. Shaw, the son of a coach, is known as a "gym rat" who loves to play the game. His progress will be closely monitored this spring. Walk-on sophomore Seth Strickland rounds out the quarterback contingent.
TAILBACK: The Gamecocks were very young at the tailback position a year ago, but now feature four backs who have all gained a significant amount of experience at the collegiate level. Sophomore Kenny Miles is the team's top returning rusher. He carried 117 times for 626 yards in 2009, an average of 5.4 yards per carry, and rarely was tackled for a loss. He put together three 100-yard rushing games, going over the century mark against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Clemson. Senior Brian Maddox is the veteran leader of the group. He excels at pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield. Maddox logged a season-best 82 yards rushing in the hard-fought loss to Florida. Jarvis Giles had an up-and-down campaign as a true freshman. His season was highlighted by a 113-yard effort in the win over Florida Atlantic, but he did not play in two of the last three games. Giles and fellow sophomore Bryce Sherman have more big-play ability and need to get the ball in their hands in the open space to make things happen. Sherman, a former track athlete, was the surprise of the fall camp a year ago and, like Giles, can make people miss despite being undersized. Eric Baker, who was listed atop the depth chart going into the spring a year ago, suffered an ACL injury during the bowl practices and will not be available during the spring.
FULLBACK: The fullback position is in the capable hands of senior Patrick DiMarco. DiMarco, who served as a team captain last season, is regarded as an excellent blocker. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield, as his three receiving touchdowns will attest. DiMarco may get moved around a little more this spring in an effort to make the most of his talents. Freshman Matt Coffee makes his first appearance for the Gamecocks this spring. Coffee originally signed with Carolina a year ago, but did not enroll until this spring while rehabbing an injured knee. The coaching staff is interested to see what he can do this spring. Solid walk-on Dalton Wilson adds depth at the fullback position and also has been used on special teams. Walk-on Jacob Baker also adds depth to the backfield.
WIDE RECEIVER: Despite losing starter Moe Brown to graduation, the Gamecock receiving corps should be one of the strengths of the offense in 2010. Once again it's a very young group, with Dion Lecorn the only senior listed on the depth chart. LeCorn hopes to be back at full strength after suffering a broken ankle in the 2009 Garnet & Black Spring Game. However, to get on the playing field in his final campaign, LeCorn will have to challenge a trio of big receivers in Jason Barnes, Alshon Jeffery and Tori Gurley. With 29 games played including 17 starts, Barnes has the most experience and is looking for a breakout year as a redshirt junior. Jeffery was on everyone's Freshman All-America list last fall after leading the team with 46 catches for 763 yards and six touchdowns. Gurley posted 31 receptions last fall and scored two TDs, although he had three others called back due to penalties in the first two games. Sophomore D.L. Moore continues to improve and is the other returning wide receiver who earned a significant amount of playing time in 2009. Junior Stephen Flint has shown good hands in practice and a good spring could elevate him into the rotation this fall. The Gamecock coaches were hoping to take a longer look at a trio of redshirt freshmen, DeMario Bennett, DeAngelo Smith and Lamar Scruggs, this spring, but Smith is out of the mix after breaking his foot during the offseason. Cedrick Snead and Kevin White add depth to the roster at wide receiver.
TIGHT END: The Gamecocks are not overly stocked at the tight end position, but have a couple of returning players who are more than capable. Senior Weslye Saunders has all the tools to be a huge factor in the Carolina attack. He caught 32 passes a season ago, doubling his total from 2008. At 6-6 and 273 pounds, he is difficult matchup for opposing defenses. Sophomore Justice Cunningham was a pleasant surprise last fall as a true freshmen, showing excellent blocking skills and a strong work ethic to earn some early playing time. Sophomore Mike Triglia has made some improvements and could have used a strong spring to gain more playing time in the fall, but will be sidelined following offseason shoulder surgery. Walk-on Kyle Madden, a transfer from Central Florida, joins the team this spring. Don't be surprised if Patrick DiMarco gets a look here as well in an effort to get him on the playing field more consistently.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Shawn Elliott has the task of developing the Gamecocks' offensive line in 2010. Elliott, a Camden, S.C. product, is the O-Line's third position coach in as many years, and hopes to bring some of the same schemes that helped Appalachian State to three straight FCS Championships to Columbia. The Gamecocks lose two offensive linemen in Garrett Anderson and Lemuel Jeanpierre who both saw significant action over the past four seasons, but return several candidates that have extensive experience in the SEC trenches. It will be up to Elliott to determine what position is best for each of the players and which five will comprise the starting lineup. The closest thing to a "lock" going into the spring for a starting role is sophomore T.J. Johnson. Johnson was the only offensive lineman to start every game during the 2009 campaign and earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team. However, Johnson will be getting a look at center this spring after playing right guard last fall. Backing up Johnson at center is junior Ryan Broadhead. At 6-5, 310-pounds, senior Jarriel King certainly looks the role of an SEC lineman and has made 19 starts over the past two years. He figures in the lineup somewhere on the left side, at either tackle or guard. He will battle junior Kyle Nunn for the starting tackle spot and redshirt freshman Nick Allison, who impressed the coaches last season, at left guard. Senior Terrence Campbell could also figure in the mix if he is healthy after missing most of the 2009 season with neck and shoulder problems. On the right side of the line, look for a good battle at the tackle position with senior walk-on Garrett Chisolm competing with three-year letterwinner Hutch Eckerson for the starting nod. Junior Quintin Richardson will miss the spring following surgery, but is another candidate with experience when he returns in the fall. A pair of former junior college teammates, Rokevious Watkins and Steven Singleton are listed one-two at the right guard spot entering the spring, although Elliott reserves the right to tinker with any and all of the positions in the spring.
The Carolina defense, the team's strong suit over the past few seasons with back-to-back top-15 rankings, figures to be very strong again in 2010. While seven of the 11 starters return, the Gamecocks have some huge holes to fill, most notably the shoes of the unit's top playmaker, All-American Eric Norwood. Norwood, a three-time first-team All-SEC pick, will be playing on Sundays this fall after setting school records in sacks and tackles for loss. Strong safety Darian Stewart, defensive tackle Nathan Pepper and defensive end Clifton Geathers, also will be missed. Ellis Johnson and staff will begin to plug those gaps this spring, but will try to do so without a full deck, as several of the key returnees will forego the spring while rehabbing from offseason surgeries.
DEFENSIVE LINE: The defensive line numbers will be a little thin this spring, but if everyone returns healthy in the fall, this unit should be a strong suit. Senior defensive end Cliff Matthews is the Gamecocks' best defender and plays with a passion that is matched by few. He will man one end of the line with sophomore Devin Taylor expected to start on the opposite side. Taylor battled Geathers, who turned down his final year of eligibility, for playing time last fall and will continue to improve as he fills out his large frame. Senior Ladi Ajiboye and junior Travian Robertson anchor the middle of the line. Ajiboye has tremendous quickness and power, while Robertson is also blessed with strength and power. Neither Matthews or Robertson is expected to participate this spring but should be ready in the fall. Junior Melvin Ingram could benefit the most from Robertson's absence in the spring. The former linebacker showed progress throughout the 2009 campaign. Kenny Davis, a sophomore with tremendous potential, needs to have a good spring to be counted on in the rotation this fall. Ronald Byrd will miss the spring as he continues to rehab from an ACL injury. At defensive end, redshirt freshman Chaz Sutton will get a long look in the spring with Matthews sidelined. The coaches are excited about his ability and he could solidify a spot in the rotation. Junior Byron McKnight has primarily been a role player but should also benefit from more reps this spring. Lack of depth forced the Gamecocks to take off the redshirt of Aldrick Fordham last fall. Redshirt freshman Chaun Gresham makes the transition from linebacker to defensive end this spring.
LINEBACKER: The Gamecocks will miss the big-play ability of standout Eric Norwood, but have more quality depth throughout the linebacking corps this season. Junior Shaq Wilson, the team's leading tackler a year ago, makes the transition to the "Will" position after playing the "Mike." Although a bit undersized at 5-10 and 226 pounds, Wilson just gets the job done. Senior Rodney Paulk hopes to stay away from injuries that have sidelined him throughout his Carolina career. He is a leader and figures to play a prominent role in the fall if he is close to 100 percent physically. A pair of former junior college teammates, Tony Straughter and Josh Dickerson, are listed on the second team entering the spring behind Wilson and Paulk, respectively. Both are seniors and expected to make more of a contribution with a year of the system under their belts. Another JUCO transfer, Toquavius Gilchrist, has a chance to challenge for a role as well. How quickly he can learn the system will dictate his time on the field. Gilchrist, who has three years to play three, could play either linebacker position. Sophomore Quin Smith may have the most untapped potential of the linebackers. A productive special teams player last season, the coaches are still trying to figure out Smith's best position. Sophomore Reginald Bowens has the physical tools to be contributor, but will miss the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Walk-on Billy Byrne could help on special teams.
CORNERBACK: The Gamecocks had some big holes to fill at cornerback a year ago after losing Captain Munnerlyn, Carlos Thomas and Stoney Woodson, all who at least made it to an NFL camp. Although they were young and relatively inexperienced, the corners held their own during the 2009 season and should only get better over time. Stephon Gilmore holds down one of the cornerback positions. A true freshman who started every game at corner in `09, Gilmore earned accolades on several Freshman All-America squads. He will be backed up by sophomore Jay Spearman and junior walk-on Brandan Davis. Spearman is an athletic player, but has battled injuries in his career. He needs a good spring to make the jump into the rotation in the fall. Davis is a role player who can be a solid backup. On the other side of the field, senior Chris Culliver is slated to transition from free safety to cornerback, which projects to be his best position on the next level. Unfortunately, Culliver will not be available in the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Junior C.C. Whitlock will be the beneficiary of more reps in the spring, as he will split time with redshirt freshman Jimmy Legree. Senior Addison Williams is another Gamecock who will not participate in the spring due to an injury. Former track sprinter Marty Markett adds depth.
SAFETY: The Gamecocks lose strong safety Darian Stewart, but return all of the other safeties and Spurs. Playing time will be hotly contested with no seniors in the mix for the starting spots. Junior Akeem Auguste moves to free safety which is probably his best position, after playing cornerback last fall. He has excellent instincts for the ball and likes to hit. Sophomore D.J. Swearinger, who also played cornerback as a true freshman last fall, also transitions to the free safety spot this spring. Swearinger is a physical tackler whose experience at corner will only help. DeVonte Holloman gets the first shot at replacing Stewart at strong safety. Just a sophomore, Holloman provides leadership and showed improvement as his freshman year progressed. Junior Alonzo Winfield and redshirt freshman Corey Addison are penciled in to back up Holloman. Winfield is a smart and experienced player who has also been used at the Spur position, while Addison is a physical player who performed well on the scout team a year ago. Junior Antonio Allen figures to get the nod at the Spur position, but will be challenged by sophomore Damario Jeffery. Allen has the ability to be a playmaker and finished the 2009 year strong. Jeffery played a lot of snaps as a true freshman has a huge upside. Sophomore Jarrett Burns will get a look at Spur after playing at the free safety position a year ago. Special teams contributor Blake Baxley, Jared Shaw and newcomer Matt O'Brien add depth to the secondary.
All of the key figures return for the Gamecocks special teams in 2010, including punter/placekicker Spencer Lanning, who was solid and at times spectacular. While parts of the special teams were among the best, as witnessed by the squads' five blocked kicks, tying for the nation's eighth-best mark, some areas need to be addressed this season, including a kick coverage unit that surrendered three touchdowns.
PLACEKICKER: An area of concern entering the 2009 season after the departure of Ryan Succop, quickly proved to be an area of strength with the emergence of Spencer Lanning as the placekicker. Lanning, who has handled the punting chores in each of the past two seasons, took on the added responsibility of the plackicking duties and performed admirably in his first tour of duty. He connected on 17-of-20 field goals on the season, an 85 percent success rate, with a long of 47 yards. He also converted 28-of-29 extra points and led the team with 79 points overall. Adam Yates, who handled most of the kickoff duties a year ago, is the most serious candidate to challenge Lanning, but most likely will focus on keeping his job on kickoffs, trying to fend off the challenge from Joey Scribner-Howard and former North Carolina kicker Jay Wooten. Stephen Flint returns for his third season as the holder and will be backed up by Wooten.
PUNTER: Spencer Lanning has handled the punting chores in each of the past two seasons and figures to be the odds-on-favorite to do so again in 2010. Lanning is the model of consistency, as he averaged 42.1 yards per punt in 2008 and 41.9 yards in 2009. Walk-on Eric Davis has improved tremendously from last spring and figures to battle C.J. Heinz for the backup punter role in the spring.
DEEP SNAPPER: Senior Charles Turner has been a consistent short and deep snapper for the Gamecocks over the past three years and enters the spring as the No. 1 snapper again this year. He is not without competition however, as sophomore Walker Inabinet has impressed the coaches with his abilities despite his smaller stature. Veteran walk-ons Matt Grooms and Chris Vaughn provide depth.
KICK RETURNER: Chris Culliver is the school's all-time leader in kickoff returns (94) and in kickoff return yardage (2,215), which also ranks fifth all-time in the SEC. However, Culliver gave up those kickoff returns duties in the middle of last season to former track sprinter Bryce Sherman. Sherman did a respectable job, but was unable to break a long return and averaged about a yard and a half less than Culliver. Either is capable of handling those duties again this season.
PUNT RETURNER: Stephon Gilmore handled the brunt of the punt return duties last year as a true freshman and did an admirable job, averaging just over 10 yards per return. He took one to the house at Tennessee, only to see it called back by a penalty that occurred behind the play. Akeem Auguste also has experience handling punts.