Gamecocks Open Spring Drills Tuesday
March 4, 2013
One question that circulates around athletics is, "Is it harder to build a championship program or to maintain one?" Well, the South Carolina Gamecocks are about to find out.
Coming off its best season in school history, a campaign in which they won 11 games for the second-straight year and produced their highest final national ranking, the Gamecocks will try to build on that momentum as they begin preparations for the 2013 campaign. The ultimate goal of winning an SEC Championship has barely eluded Carolina over the past three seasons, but the squad will head into spring drills focused on reaching that lofty goal again this season. As one of only four BCS schools, along with Alabama, Oregon and Stanford, that has recorded 11-win seasons in each of the last two campaigns, Carolina will once again be the hunted, rather than the hunter.
Buoyed by the return of 36 lettermen, including a dozen starters from a team that went 11-2, captured the Outback Bowl and finished as high as number 7 in the Coaches' poll, the Gamecocks, under ninth-year head coach Steve Spurrier, have solidified the program to a point where they are able to re-load, rather than re-build. Led by the nation's top defensive player and a Heisman Trophy candidate in Jadeveon Clowney, Carolina figures to be one of the favorites in the SEC East and a preseason top-10 candidate again in 2013.
Once again, the road to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game is a difficult one in which to traverse. However, at least on paper, this year's schedule appears a bit more manageable, as it does not feature a gauntlet similar to the one the Gamecocks faced in 2012 when they had contests versus Georgia, at LSU and at Florida in consecutive weeks, a stretch that proved to be Carolina's undoing. After a non-conference Thursday night opener against neighboring North Carolina, the Gamecocks will travel to Georgia for a key early SEC Eastern Division showdown in which Carolina will try to make it four-straight over the Bulldogs. The much-improved Vanderbilt Commodores visit Columbia the following week. After a non-conference trip to UCF, the Gamecocks embark on a stretch of six-consecutive SEC contests, beginning with a home game against Kentucky. Carolina then has three-straight road tilts - at Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri - that will test their mettle before wrapping up the conference slate with back-to-back home battles with Mississippi State and Florida, the latter of which could decide the East. The regular season ends with a pair of non-conference home games against in-state opponents on the opposite ends of familiarity. The Gamecocks will meet Coastal Carolina for the first time ever, then will try to make it five-straight against Clemson when the teams meet for the 111th time.
The Gamecocks embark on their 15 spring practices with six starters returning on offense and five on defense, along with the punter. With several spots up for grabs and five players already considered out for the spring due to injury, the opportunity exists for others to step up, gain more reps in the practices and scrimmages and establish themselves as viable candidates for playing time in the fall.
Several questions will need to be answered if the Gamecocks are to challenge for the SEC East crown again in 2013. While some of those questions may be answered in the spring, others may not be fully resolved until the fall. Some of the more pertinent questions are:
* With just four scholarship seniors on the roster, who will step up in a leadership role?
* With the somewhat surprising early departure of Ace Sanders and no senior wide receivers on the roster, which of the younger wideouts will make an impression and work their way into the rotation this fall?
* What new wrinkles will Deke Adams, the only change on the coaching staff, bring as the new defensive line coach?
* With the loss of five seniors who took nearly all the snaps, how quickly can the young linebacking corps pick up the schemes and gain the coaches' trust?
* Who will take charge and serve as the quarterback of the secondary following the loss of standout D.J. Swearinger?
Those and other questions will begin to be answered when the Gamecocks open their spring practice schedule on Tuesday, March 5. The allotted 15 practices will wrap up with the annual Garnet & Black Spring Game on Saturday, April 13.
The Carolina offense officially returns six starters, including four on the offensive line, from a squad that averaged 31.5 points per game a season ago. Gone are playmakers like Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, along with center T.J. Johnson who started every game over the past four seasons, and solid contributors in Justice Cunningham and D.L. Moore. Led by a pair of experienced quarterbacks in Connor Shaw, the only senior skill position player on the depth chart, and junior Dylan Thompson, the Gamecocks have as good of tandem QB's as anyone in the country. The Gamecocks return 42 percent of their rushing yards, 96 percent of their passing yards and 54 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago. Along with the signal-caller, the strength of this year's offense could be in a still young, but experienced offensive line.
QUARTERBACK: Incumbent Connor Shaw returns for his senior campaign. Shaw, who owns a 17-3 record as a starting quarterback, including a 10-0 mark at home, threw for just under 2,000 yards a season ago while completing two-thirds of his passes, including 17 for touchdowns against just seven interceptions. Shaw is also the Gamecocks' leading returning rusher after netting 435 yards with three scores a year ago. He will sit out the spring after undergoing surgery right after the bowl game on his foot, but is expected to be at full go when fall practices get underway. With Shaw sidelined for the spring, junior Dylan Thompson will be handed the reins, something he handled admirably in spot duty during the 2012 campaign. Thompson completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,027 yards with 10 touchdowns and just two INTs last year. He went the distance in the win at Clemson and fired the game-winning touchdown strike to Bruce Ellington in the final seconds of the Outback Bowl against Michigan. Redshirt freshman Brendan Nosovitch enters the spring third on the depth chart, but impressed the coaches during practices last fall and will have more opportunity to showcase his wares this spring. Nosovitch put together one of Pennsylvania's most outstanding prep careers, passing for nearly 13,000 yards. True freshman Connor Mitch will get his first taste of college ball this spring. Mitch was one of two freshman to graduate early and enroll at Carolina in January. At 6-3 and 219-pounds, he is blessed with excellent size and was highly regarded coming out of Raleigh, N.C. Walk-on Austin Hails returns for his sophomore season and provides depth, as does newcomer Perry Orth.
TAILBACK: The Gamecocks will have a new look at tailback following the departure of Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles, who combined to rush 870 times for over 4,000 yards during their Carolina careers. While running backs coach Everette Sands is excited about the overall talent in the backfield, he views the spring as a time for separation and will be looking for someone to step up and fill those big shoes. Ideally, Sands would like his number one tailback to have 60-65 percent of the carries, with the number two back getting the next 30-35 percent. The first three on the depth chart this spring are all sophomores. Mike Davis gained some valuable experience and showed some flashes last fall as a true freshman and will get the first opportunity to run with the first unit. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry including a 50-yard burst against UAB. Brandon Wilds returns after sitting out the 2012 campaign as a redshirt. Wilds has proven himself at this level, as he logged three 100-yard rushing games as a true freshman in 2011. A patient runner, Wilds is also considered the best blocker of the group. Redshirt freshman Kendric Salley is healthy for the first time and will get an opportunity to put his talents on display this spring. He has the physical tools the coaches are looking for but also has the biggest learning curve. Shon Carson has missed most of his first two seasons for the Garnet & Black with injuries and may be limited again this spring, as he is a member of the Carolina baseball team. When he's been healthy, the coaches like his ability. How much he is able to be part of the football program this spring remains in question due to his baseball commitment. Walk-on Devin Potter adds depth.
FULLBACK: The Gamecocks had a limited number of two-back sets which incorporated a fullback in 2012 and that will likely not change in 2013. Only walk-ons dot the roster for this role, which primarily has been as a blocker for the tailback. Junior Connor McLaurin, who earned his first letter last fall primarily due to his work on special teams, figures to be the first fullback called upon. Junior Jordan Diaz moves over from linebacker and will compete for the position, along with sophomore Ty Sutherland.
WIDE RECEIVER: Youth will be served at the wide receiver position, as the unit does not feature a senior. Wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. will have to find a replacement for his top performer, Ace Sanders, who left after an MVP performance in the Outback Bowl and with a year of eligibility remaining to embark on a pro career. But Spurrier Jr. is accustomed to replacing some special receivers who have donned the Garnet & Black in recent years, including Sidney Rice, Kenny McKinley and Alshon Jeffery, all of whom earned spots on NFL rosters. The leader of this year's group figures to be one of college athletics top two-sport standouts in junior Bruce Ellington. Ellington had his best season on the gridiron last fall, leading the team with 600 receiving yards on 40 catches with seven touchdowns. He spent the last three months serving as the starting point guard on Frank Martin's men's basketball team. Ellington enters the spring joined on the first unit by a pair of junior classmates in Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones. Byrd, who also is a two-sport standout at South Carolina as a member of the track & field team, is the fastest player on the roster and the Gamecocks' best deep threat. He averaged 26.1 yards on 14 catches a season ago. While Byrd seems to make the big splashes, Jones flies more under the radar. He logged a dozen catches last season, but eight of those came in the final three games. Interestingly, none of the Gamecocks' three projected starters stand taller than 5-9. After those three, the rest of the receiving corps is talented but virtually untested. Sophomore Shaq Roland may have the most raw talent of the group. The state's 2011 "Mr. Football" came in with all kinds of credentials but saw limited action as a true freshman as he made the adjustment to the collegiate level. Redshirt sophomores Shamier Jeffery and K.J. Brent are both in their third year in the program and should be ready to challenge for a spot in the rotation. Kwinton Smith and Jody Fuller were redshirted as freshman a year ago, and have an opportunity this spring to prove that they are ready to contribute as well in the fall. Brent and Smith both are listed at 6-4, giving Coach Spurrier Jr. some options when he wants to go with some taller receivers. Walk-ons Tevin Bradshaw, Dwyane Duckett, David Wilkins, a former track member at South Carolina, and Kane Whitehurst add depth. Bradshaw and Whitehurst are eligible this fall for the first time after sitting out a year as a transfer, while Duckett is a local product from Columbia's Spring Valley High School.
TIGHT END: Despite the departure of Justice Cunningham, the Gamecocks figure to be well-stocked at the tight end position again this season. The returning trio of scholarship players all have the size and speed to present difficult matches for a defense. Rory "Busta" Anderson, a 6-5, 218-pound target, has been a big-play performer during his first two campaigns, logging eight touchdowns on 22 catches in 26 contests. Jerell Adams, who checks in a 6-6 and 224-pounds, earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team a year ago. Drew Owens, a 6-6, 241-pound sophomore, figures to work his way into the mix as well, after a knee injury suffered in the 2012 Garnet & Black Spring Game limited his opportunities last fall. Walk-on Jeff Homad returns to add depth.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Relatively young but experienced would be the best way to describe the returners on the offensive line. The Gamecocks lost a good one in center T.J. Johnson, who started every game over the past four seasons, but return everyone else who saw any significant action during the 2012 campaign. The only senior of the group is right tackle Ronald Patrick, who started every game a year ago. A pair of junior starters return on the left side of the line and figure to man those positions again this year. Tackle Corey Robinson, the biggest of the linemen at 6-8, 338, and guard A.J. Cann, a two-year starter, should be even more comfortable working side-by-side this season. Sophomore Brandon Shell took over the right tackle duties last season and earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team. The only newcomer on the starting five entering the spring will be redshirt freshman center Cody Waldrop. The coaches like his potential and he could become a fixture for years to come. Junior Cody Gibson has made six starts in his career and could push either Robinson or Shell for playing time at one of the tackle positions, giving Carolina quality depth at that spot. Another tackle, junior Mike Matulis, has seen considerable playing time during his Gamecock career, including 10 starts, but will miss the spring while rehabbing from shoulder surgery. The only sophomore reserve of the group, Will Sport, saw action on special teams last season and is a darkhorse candidate to see playing time at either guard or center. A trio of redshirt freshman, six-foot nine-inch tackle Mason Zandi and the twins, guard Brock Stadnik and center Clayton Stadnik, used the year to get bigger and stronger in the weight room. The spring will show whether that extra work paid off and can carry over to the field of play. Newcomer D.J. Park graduated from high school early and will get a jump start on the other incoming freshman class this spring.
The Carolina defense returns five starters from a unit that ranked in the top 25 in the four major statistical categories a year ago - scoring defense (13th), rushing defense (17th), passing defense (21st) and total defense (11th). The Gamecocks will have a completely different look to their linebacking corps, as Reginald Bowens, DeVonte Holloman, Damario Jeffery, Quin Smith and Shaq Wilson, who combined for 99 career starts, all moved on following graduation. Carolina will also be without starters Byron Jerideau and Devin Taylor along the defensive line, and standout safety D.J. Swearinger. However, the cupboard is certainly not bare. Any unit that can feature 6-6, 272-pound defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a unanimous All-American and legitimate candidate for every post-season award in 2013, including the Heisman Trophy, is one to be reckoned with. Clowney will be joined up front by Kelcy Quarles. The secondary features three returning starters in cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree and safety Brison Williams. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward is confident the talent level is there and the experience will come, but the goal will be to develop some leaders among the unit, starting this spring.
DEFENSIVE LINE: The only coaching change for the Gamecocks this past offseason came on the defensive line where former North Carolina assistant Deke Adams was brought in to replace longtime assistant Brad Lawing. Adams must have felt like he won the lottery when he took the job knowing he would be working with the nation's top defensive player in Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney, a 6-6, 272-pound junior earned unanimous All-America honors last season, just the second Gamecock in history to do so, joining Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers. Clowney, a Heisman contender in his own right after finishing sixth in the balloting in 2012, was the Ted Hendricks Award winner as the nation's top defensive end, and was a finalist for the Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik Awards after setting school records with 13.0 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss. But Clowney isn't the only standout on the defensive line. Junior Kelcy Quarles has started 17 games over the past two seasons and figures to be a stalwart in the middle of the defensive line again in 2013. The only scholarship senior of the unit is defensive end Chaz Sutton. Sutton, a 6-5, 256-pounder, has waited patiently for his turn in the starting lineup, but has been very productive as a backup, as witnessed by his 5.0 sacks last season. Junior J.T. Surratt, who also has been waiting his turn, figures to open the spring as the probable starter at the defensive tackle position next to Quarles. While those penciled in to start have plenty of experience, the spring will be an opportunity for several younger players to show they are ready for the big stage. Three sophomores will challenge for time at the tackle position, including Gerald Dixon Jr., Phillip Dukes and Deon Green. Dixon Jr. saw the most time last season, while Green has been hampered by injuries throughout his Carolina career. A pair of sophomores in Gerald Dixon and Mason Harris, along with redshirt freshman Darius English, will compete for the backup roles at defensive end. A trio of walk-on defensive ends, Ashton Holmes, Michael Washington and Jamal Hall, could also figure into the mix and add depth.
LINEBACKER: Maybe the biggest question mark entering the spring will be how the Gamecocks fill the linebacking position. The veteran quartet of Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens, Damario Jeffery and Quin Smith took nearly ever snap last season, leaving a thin and untested group to go through spring drills until reinforcements join the squad this fall. All five linebackers on the pre-spring depth chart are underclassmen. They will spend the spring getting the base system down pat. A pair of second-year players in sophomore Kaiwan Lewis and redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman will compete for the "Mike" position. Lewis lettered last season primarily for his work on special teams. With sophomore Cedrick Cooper sidelined this spring with a knee injury, sophomore Marcquis Roberts and redshirt freshman Kelvin Rainey will battle for the "Will" position. Roberts has been injured throughout his stint at Carolina, while Rainey transitions from his tight end position last year. Walk-on Darian Sims returns to add much needed depth.
SPUR: One of the most important positions of the Gamecock defense is the Spur, a hybrid linebacker/safety spot that was manned by DeVonte Holloman last season. Junior Sharrod Golightly figures to get the first opportunity to nail down the starting role, but he will be hard-pressed to hold off redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs for that duty. Golightly has the benefit of experience, but Diggs has impressed the coaches in his short time on the Columbia campus. As is the case with the two linebacker positions, additional help is expected to arrive this fall when the freshmen class reports to camp.
CORNERBACK: The Gamecocks have both of their starting cornerbacks returning, as Victor Hampton made a dozen starts last season and Jimmy Legree earned eight starting assignments. Hampton, a junior, is the most physical corner on the squad and considered the best cover man. One who plays with a lot of emotion, Hampton logged 40 tackles and one interception last season. Legree, a senior, has played both corner and safety during his Gamecock career. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions last season while figuring in on 44 stops. Expect junior college transfer Ronnie Martin to figure into the rotation right away. Martin originally signed with the Gamecocks in 2011, finally made his way onto the Columbia campus in January and will go through spring drills. Walk-on Sidney Rhodes, who developed into a solid contributor on special teams, will also get a longer look this spring. Athletic sophomore Ahmad Christian gained some much needed experience last fall as a redshirt freshman, but earned a spot on the Carolina baseball team and may not see much action on the gridiron this spring. He suffered a stress fracture in his lower back this spring which could also slow his development. Rico McWilliams caught the coaches' eyes early last fall before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He will continue to rehab the injury this spring. Junior Jessie Dukes returns to add depth.
SAFETY: Another position that has no seniors on the preseason depth chart is safety. Replacing D.J. Swearinger's leadership and tenacity will be difficult, but several young players will get an opportunity in the spring. Junior Brison Williams is the odds on favorite to take over those leadership duties vacated by Swearinger as the returning starter at strong safety. He finished sixth on the team in tackles last season with 52 while starting a dozen games. Junior Kadetrix "JJ" Marcus is penciled in as the starter at free safety, but will face stiff competition in the fall if sophomore T.J. Gurley, a member of the SEC All-Freshman team, is able to bounce back from his season-ending knee injury. A trio of redshirt freshmen, including Chris Moody, Kyle Fleetwood and Chaz Elder, will all have the opportunity this spring to showcase their talents.
Special teams coach Joe Robinson returns for his second season with the Gamecocks. He will be challenged this spring to find replacements for kicker Adam Yates, deep snapper Walker Inabinet, holder Seth Strickland and punt returner extraordinare Ace Sanders. The Gamecocks will be looking for improvement in all facets, including the punt team and kickoff return unit that feature specialists Tyler Hull and Bruce Ellington, respectively.
PLACEKICKER: For the third straight season, Carolina goes into the spring looking for a new placekicker. Sophomore walk-on Landon Ard and redshirt freshman Nick St. Germain, a scholarship player, figure to battle it out all spring for both the field goal/PAT and kickoff duties. Ard gained some experience last season as he handled the kickoff duties early in the season before giving way to a more consistent Adam Yates. Walk-on Jake Joyner provides depth.
PUNTER: Junior Tyler Hull arrived on campus after fall camp opened in 2012 and quickly established himself as the team's top punter, a role he held all season. He seemed to get more comfortable as the season progressed and is expected to improve on his average this season. Junior Patrick Fish will once again provide the primary competition. Newcomer Andrew Komornik will join the competition this spring.
LONG SNAPPER: Coach Robinson will be looking to find a replacement for the long snapping duties, which were in the capable hands of Walker Inabinet for the last three seasons. Inabinet is believed to hold the school record for most games dressed, as he dressed for every contest over the past five years. Sophomore Coleman Harley and junior Ryland Culbertson return to the squad and figure to battle it out this spring, but the final decision on who earns this unsung position may not come until the fall.
KICK RETURNER: Junior Bruce Ellington has handled the bulk of the kickoff returns in each of the past two seasons and figures to have the first opportunity again in 2013, although his importance as a wide receiver may sway the coaching staff to look another direction. Damiere Byrd certainly has the speed necessary, while Victor Hampton has shown an ability in the return game as well. Other options could be presented in the fall.
PUNT RETURNER: The Gamecocks will be hard-pressed to replace one of the nation's best in electric Ace Sanders. Sanders earned co-SEC Special Teams Player of the Year accolades after averaging over 15 yards a return while taking it to the house against both Georgia and Michigan. Victor Hampton gets the first shot at taking over for Sanders but this role may not be solidified until the fall.