March 13, 2012
What will they do for an encore?
After establishing several "Football Firsts" in 2011, including an 11-win season, a final Top-10 ranking in both the Associated Press and USA TODAY Coaches' polls, a Top-10 finish in the final BCS Standings, six SEC wins, and an undefeated mark against SEC Eastern Division opponents, the 2012 edition of South Carolina Football will be challenged by increased expectations, loftier goals and a possible Top-10 preseason ranking.
The biggest change for the 2012 team from that of 2011 isn't so much the players on the field, but rather those who are coaching them up. Gone are assistant coaches John Butler, Jay Graham, Jeep Hunter and Ellis Johnson, along with strength & conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. Head coach Steve Spurrier feels he has put together another solid staff however, adding Kirk Botkin (linebackers/Spurs), Grady Brown (secondary), Joe Robinson (special teams/tight ends) and Everette Sands (running backs) to the staff, while promoting Lorenzo Ward to run the defense and Joe Connolly to monitor the strength program.
With 43 lettermen returning, including 13 starters from a team that went 11-2, captured the Capital One Bowl and finished as the number nine team in the country, the Gamecocks are poised to battle for another SEC Eastern Division title in 2012. But the road to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game will be as tough as ever. In addition to the traditional week-to-week grind of competing in the toughest conference in the country, the SEC has added Missouri to the East and Texas A&M to the West, increasing the number of teams in each division to seven. While keeping with an eight-game conference slate, the schedule makers did Carolina no favors this year, as their two Western Division opponents are LSU and Arkansas, two teams that finished in the Top-5 in the country last season.
The Gamecocks embark on their 15 spring practices confident in the returning players at most of the starting positions. With several players who will play a major role during the fall, including such notables as Akeem Auguste, Shon Carson, Marcus Lattimore, Mike Matulis and D.J. Swearinger, sitting out the spring, opportunities are presented for others to gain more reps in the practices and scrimmages and establish themselves as viable candidates for playing time this season. The Gamecocks have 26 redshirt freshman among the 95 players in spring camp, many of whom are hoping to impress the coaches, work their way up the depth chart and parlay that into meaningful minutes this fall.
Several questions will need to be answered if the Gamecocks are to challenge for the SEC East crown. 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:
* Which wide receiver(s) will step up to replace school record-holder Alshon Jeffery as the go-to receiver this fall? The position seems well-stocked so it will be interesting to see who emerges as the leaders of the pack.
* Can a relatively young offensive line jell into a solid unit? T.J. Johnson is the veteran up front, but gone are all-league pick Rokevious Watkins and veterans Kyle Nunn and Terrence Campbell. Youngsters like Brandon Shell, Kyle Harris and Cody Gibson will be watched closely this spring by line coach Shawn Elliott.
* Who will step up as the number two quarterback behind Connor Shaw? There is no doubt Shaw is the starter, but can third-year players Dylan Thompson or Andrew Clifford solidify that number two position or will redshirt freshman Tanner McEvoy turn some heads and make a case for himself?
* Can DeVonte Holloman make a smooth transition to the Spur position after playing strong safety? Replacing the talented but under-appreciated Antonio Allen at this key position on the Gamecock defense will be critical to the success this fall.
* Who in the secondary, after losing Stephon Gilmore and C.C. Whitlock, and with D.J. Swearinger and Akeem Auguste nursing injuries this spring, will make a move and gain the confidence of the coaching staff?
* Who will perform in the kicking game, impress new special teams coordinator Joe Robinson and take over the punting and placekicking duties vacated by Joey Scribner-Howard and Jay Wooten, respectively?
* Who will replace the leadership of notables like Terrence Campbell, Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, Alshon Jeffery, Travian Robertson in the locker room? Those and other questions will begin to be answered when the Gamecocks open their spring practice schedule on Tuesday, March 13. The allotted 15 practices will wrap up with the annual Garnet & Black Spring Game on Saturday, April 14.
The Carolina offense officially returns seven starters, including many of the key playmakers from last season's squad that averaged over 30 points and just under 400 yards of total offense while using a balanced attack. Gone are record-setting wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who skipped his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, a pair of offensive linemen in Terrence Campbell and Rokevious Watkins, and walk-on starting fullback Dalton Wilson. Offensive tackle Kyle Nunn and wide receiver Jason Barnes also saw considerable action during their Gamecock careers. Led by Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw, who has won eight of his nine career starts, the Gamecocks return 89 percent of their rushing yards, 64 percent of their passing yards and 66 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago.
QUARTERBACK: Junior Connor Shaw took over the starting quarterback duties midway through the 2011 campaign and proved he was a winner. Boasting an impressive 8-1 record in nine starts, Shaw owns the best record over the past 40 years for a Gamecock signal-caller through nine games. He completed 65.4 percent of his passes (123-for-188) with 14 touchdowns while tossing just six interceptions. He also can effectively use his legs, as he scampered 135 times for 525 yards (second on the squad) with eight TDs. Shaw improved as the season progressed and he became more comfortable in his role. Over the final three games, all Gamecock wins, he completed 41-of-55 passes (74.5 percent) for 657 yards with eight touchdowns and just one pick. Three quarterbacks will vie for the all-important backup quarterback duties this spring. Sophomore Dylan Thompson has the advantage heading into spring ball over junior Andrew Clifford and redshirt freshman Tanner McEvoy. Senior walk-on Seth Strickland is also the holder on placements and has a regular spot on the travel roster. Walk-on Austin Hails is also in camp.
TAILBACK: The Gamecocks are loaded at the tailback position, a plethora of riches for new assistant coach Everette Sands, led by one of the nation's best in junior Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore will be held out this spring after suffering a knee injury midway through the 2011 campaign. Despite playing just seven games, he led the team with 818 yards rushing (116.9 per game) and scored 10 rushing touchdowns. He had four 100-yard rushing games in 2011, including a career best 37-carry, 246-yard, 3-touchdown explosion against Navy. If he comes into fall camp at 100 percent, he should be on everyone's Heisman Trophy watch list. The Gamecocks also feature quality depth behind Lattimore. Senior Kenny Miles missed part of last season with a wrist injury, but showed what he could do late in the season with impressive performances in the wins over Clemson and Nebraska. The team's top rusher in 2009, Miles owns three 100-yard rushing games and is just 18 yards short of 1,000 yards rushing in his career. Sophomore Brandon Wilds was considered a redshirt candidate when the `11 season began, but as the injuries continued to mount, Wilds climbed the depth chart and was impressive in his own right with three 100-yard rushing games, including a 137-yard effort in the win at Tennessee. Redshirt freshman Shon Carson earned his way up to the second-team unit early last fall before suffering a knee injury at Georgia. Like Lattimore, he will miss the spring, but is expected to be at full strength in the fall. Walk-on Joshua Blue adds depth.
FULLBACK: The Gamecocks used a lot of one-back sets during the 2011 campaign, but when they did have a two-back set, the fullback duties were in the capable hands of walk-on Dalton Wilson. Wilson did an admirable job as a blocker, but never touched the pigskin. Don't be surprised if tight end Justice Cunningham gets some reps when the Gamecocks are in a two-back set this year. Former linebacker Qua Gilchrist will transition to the fullback position this spring. The senior from Abbeville, S.C. was a running back in high school, so the conversion should come fairly easily. Senior walk-on Jacob Baker returns from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2011 campaign. Sophomore Matt Coffee will sit out the spring after having a season-ending knee injury last fall. Sophomore walk-on Connor McLaurin returns to add depth and will be joined by newcomer Ty Sutherland.
WIDE RECEIVER: One of the biggest holes to fill on the squad is that which has been left by Alshon Jeffery, the school's all-time leader in career receiving yards and who tied for the most touchdown catches in school history. Admittedly, Jeffery did not have a great season by his standards in 2011, but everyone knew he was the go-to guy in key situations and he often times saved his best performances for the biggest games, as witnessed by his MVP performance in the 2012 Capital One Bowl. But Steve Spurrier Jr. has had to replace some greats ones before like Sidney Rice and Kenny McKinley. There are plenty of candidates from which to chose, led by junior Ace Sanders. Sanders is the squad's leading returner with 29 catches for 383 yards a season ago. He figures to get the nod at one of the starting spots. Should Carolina open in a three-wide set, enior D.L. Moore and junior DeAngelo Smith are penciled in as the other starters. Moore is a big target at six-feet, four inches, but saw his numbers drop considerably last season after a promising 2010 campaign. Smith was the star of the 2011 Garnet & Black Spring Game with three touchdown catches, but was unable to match that kind of performance last fall. Should either falter, there are plenty of players waiting in the wings, two of whom spent the offseason participating in other sports. Sophomore speedster Damiere Byrd spent the winter sprinting with the Gamecock track team. He is certainly the team's best deep threat. Sophomore Nick Jones showed flashes last season of being able to make a big play, working his way into two starting assignments. Junior Lamar Scruggs did not see a lot of game action in 2011 despite making a pair of starts. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Shamier Jeffery and K.J. Brent will use the 15 practices as a springboard into the fall. Returning walk-ons Blair Lowery, Cody Gilbert and Riley Gallaher add depth, as will new additions Dwayne Duckett and Sidney Rhodes.
TIGHT END: The Gamecocks return their top two tight ends from a year ago in senior Justice Cunningham and sophomore Rory "Buster" Anderson. Cunningham is an excellent blocker and an important cog in the Gamecocks' running attack. As mentioned, he could also be more of an "H" back, similar to the role that Patrick DiMarco was used in two years ago. Anderson proved to be a big-play threat, as he averaged 23.5 yards on eight catches with three touchdowns. The Gamecocks did not have much depth at the position a year ago behind Cunningham and Anderson, so it will be interesting to watch the development of redshirt freshman Drew Owens and Kelvin Rainey, who is an early enrollee after graduating from high school in December. Sophomore Corey Simmons also returns to the fold and will go through his second spring at tight end after beginning his career on the defensive side of the ball.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The Gamecocks will be relatively young on the offensive line in 2012 after losing three of their top blockers to graduation in all-SEC performer Rokevious Watkins, Terrence Campbell and Kyle Nunn. Fifth-year senior center T.J. Johnson returns as the leader of the group. He has started every game over the past three seasons. Flanking him on the left side should be sophomore guard A.J. Cann. Cann started every game last fall while earning Freshman All-America accolades. Junior Ronald Patrick gets the first shot at right guard. He has seen limited time over the past two seasons. A pair of youngsters will most likely earn the starting nods at the two tackle positions in what appears to be a three-man contest. Sophomores Mike Matulis, who will sit out the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, and Cody Gibson each gained valuable experience last season while splitting time at the right tackle spot. They, along with highly-touted redshirt freshman Brandon Shell figure to be the odds-on-favorite for the starting spots. Redshirt freshman Kyle Harris could become a factor at either the guard or center position. Seniors Kaleb Broome and Kenny Davis along with walk-ons Travis Ford and Ryland Culbertson, add veteran depth, while redshirt freshman Will Sport could be a dark horse candidate. True freshmen, twin brothers Brock and Clayton Stadnik, graduated early and enrolled in January. Brock, a tackle and the more highly-touted of the two, will sit out the spring after shoulder surgery. Clayton adds depth to the interior.
The Carolina defense, the team's strong suit over the past few seasons, will be hard-pressed to match the outstanding numbers it posted in 2011. That squad ranked third in the country in total defense, allowing just 267.7 yards per game, and second in the country in pass defense, surrendering just 131.7 yards through the air. Gone from that unit are Antonio Allen, Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, Rodney Paulk, Travian Robertson and C.C. Whitlock, along with the man who was in charge of the defense, Ellis Johnson. But Lorenzo Ward, who was promoted to take over the defense just prior to the Capital One Bowl, showed he is more than capable, as his unit held Nebraska scoreless over the final three quarters and limited the Cornhuskers to just 64 yards in the second half in his debut. While those players will be missed for their leadership and big-play ability, the cupboard is far from bare. The names expected to receive the lion's share of headlines are defensive ends Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, and defensive backs DeVonte Holloman and D.J. Swearinger.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Brad Lawing's defensive front should be the strength of this year's squad despite the loss of All-American Melvin Ingram and team leader Travian Robertson. The Gamecock defensive ends will be as good as any in the country, as they feature senior Devin Taylor, who has been an all-SEC performer, on one side and sophomore Jadeveon Clowney, the SEC Freshman of the Year, on the other. Taylor ranks among the Gamecocks' career top-10 in both sacks (T5th-15.5) and tackles for loss (T9th-27.0). Clowney was on everyone's Freshman All-America squad last season after logging 12.0 tackles for loss including 8.0 quarterback sacks. He also forced five fumbles. The Gamecocks not only have tremendous starters, but also feature excellent depth at the defensive end position. Junior Chaz Sutton and senior Aldrick Fordham are listed as the second-teamers. Sutton could start for many teams, while Fordham is excited to move outside after playing as an undersized tackle last season. Redshirt freshmen Deon Green and Gerald Dixon hope to work their way into the rotation however, Green will not be available in the spring while working his way back from an injury. Walk-ons Jamal Hall and Michael Washington add depth. Sophomore Kelcy Quarles moved into the starting lineup midway through the 2011 campaign and garnered some Freshman All-America postseason accolades. Senior Byron Jerideau, who possesses tremendous strength, has the early lead on the other starting tackle position, replacing Robertson. The tackle position does not have the same depth that the end position features, as the backups have yet to prove themselves on the field. Sophomore J.T. Surratt is the only one of the group that has seen any playing time. It's a big spring for sophomore Corey Robinson and for redshirt freshmen Gerald Dixon Jr. and Phillip Dukes to step up and be noticed.
LINEBACKER: The Gamecocks return most of their linebacking corps from last year's unit with the exception of Rodney Paulk. The senior-laden unit is led by returning starters Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, but both are penciled in to compete at the Mike position in the spring. Wilson returned to the lineup after missing the 2010 season with hamstring injury and was fourth on the team with 52 tackles, while Bowens finally was able to stay healthy for an entire season and gave a solid performance with 44 stops. A pair of three-year letterwinners in Damario Jeffery and Quin Smith are slated to split time at the Will position. Jeffery moves inside after playing the Spur position last year. Smith is a hard-hitter who had 48 tackles a year ago. Redshirt freshmen Cedrick Cooper and Mason Harris will serve as the backups at the Will position and could factor in on special teams, while junior Chaun Gresham is the reserve scholarship Mike linebacker. Three new walk-ons will join the linebacking unit this spring. The trio includes Marcus Lyerly, Darian Sims and Darrius Williams.
SPUR: One of the biggest holes to fill on the squad will be replacing second-team All-American Antonio Allen, one of the team's top playmakers from a year ago. Senior DeVonte Holloman will get the first crack at the starting Spur position, a hybrid linebacker-safety spot on the Carolina defense. Holloman actually began the 2011 campaign working behind Allen at the position, but was moved back to strong safety early in the campaign, where he finished fifth on the squad with 51 tackles. Sophomore Sharrod Golightly worked at both the Spur and safety positions last year and enters the spring as the second teamer at Spur. Redshirt freshman Marcquis Roberts missed the entire 2011 campaign after undergoing shoulder surgery, so the spring will be an important time for him to make an impression. Senior walk-on Jared Shaw returns to add depth.
CORNERBACK: The Gamecocks will need to replace three of their top four cornerbacks from a season ago, as seniors C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett departed, along with junior Stephon Gilmore, who elected to take his wares to the next level. However, new secondary coach Grady Brown will welcome back the services of senior Akeem Auguste, who sat out nearly the entire 2011 season with a foot injury, suffered just prior to the start of fall camp. Auguste has played both cornerback and safety in his career, but was penciled in as a probable starter at corner a year ago before the injury ended those plans. He will be limited in the spring, but is expected to be at full go in the fall. Sophomore Victor Hampton figures to be the probable starter on the other side of the field. Hampton is a very physical corner who gained some experience last season in a backup role. If he can remain focused, he has the tools to become an excellent player. One of the challenges the coaches face this spring is developing quality depth behind Auguste and Hampton. Athletic junior Jimmy Legree moves back to his more natural cornerback position after making a couple starts early in the 2011 season at free safety. Sophomore Cadarious Sanders is the only other cornerback with any game experience. Redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian narrowly missed making Coach Ray Tanner's baseball team this spring, and a good spring on the gridiron could propel him into regular duty this fall.
SAFETY: Senior D.J. Swearinger returns for his final season in the Garnet & Black and is the leader in the secondary. An all-star candidate, Swearinger is the team's top returning tackler with 80 stops a season ago. He also showed an ability to make the big play, as his interceptions at Mississippi State and Tennessee were both critical in the Gamecock wins. He could play either safety position, but enters the spring as the free safety. Sophomore Brison Williams will look to solidify his role as the starter at the strong safety position this spring. Williams enrolled at Carolina in January 2011 and came out of spring drills as the probable starter as a true freshman entering the fall. A broken arm during fall camp set him back and, although he garnered some playing time, never was able to regain that starting role. Like the cornerback position, creating depth at the safety positions will be a key for Lorenzo Ward and Grady Brown this spring. A trio of second-year players, Kadetrix Marcus, Sheldon Royster and Edward Muldrow will use the spring in an effort to gain the coaches' trust. Walk-on Kenny Robinson returns for their second seasons in the program. He saw some action last season as a true freshman on special teams. The Gamecock special teams unit will have a new look this season, as Joe Anderson takes over as the special teams coordinator. Anderson will have his hands full as he looks to replace Jay Wooten and Joey Scribner-Howard, who handled the placekicking and punting chores last season. While the Gamecocks showed some improvement in the return game last year, including a punt return for a touchdown, there is still room for growth, as Carolina ranked in the lower half in the country in both kickoff and punt returns.
PLACEKICKER: The placekicking duties are up for grabs this year following the departure of capable Jay Wooten. A pair of walk-ons, redshirt freshman Landon Ard and senior Adam Yates, figure to get the first shot this spring. Ard showed a strong leg during fall camp a year ago, while Yates has game experience, as he handled much of the kickoff duties for the squad back in 2009. They will each try to establish themselves as the man to beat entering the fall, when freshman recruit Nick St. Germain joins the competition.
PUNTER: Like the placekicking situation, the punting duties are wide open entering the spring. Sophomore Patrick Fish could not unseat Scribner-Howard last season. A rare commodity in that he came to Carolina on scholarship, Fish needs a good spring to validate that scholarship opportunity. Former Columbia University punter Mike Willamson will be the primary competition for Fish in the spring.
DEEP SNAPPER: The deep snapping duties are in the capable hands of senior Walker Inabinet. He handled the often overlooked role admirably last season despite being a bit undersized. Junior walk-on Davis Moore will also get a look in the spring, as will redshirt freshman Coleman Harley.
KICK RETURNER: Victor Hampton showed promise with a team-best 25.4 yard return average on seven kicks, including a 55-yarder, the longest of the season for a Gamecock. Speedster Damiere Byrd is another potential candidate, although several players could find themselves in the mix.
PUNT RETURNER: Ace Sanders figures to be the odd-on-favorite to handle the punt return duties again in 2012. He averaged 9.3 yards per return a year ago, including a 68-yard dash for a score in the season opener against East Carolina. Like the kick return duties, several other players will get a look in the spring to see how they handle the task.
HOLDER: Reserve quarterback Seth Strickland has served as the team's holder on placements for each of the past two seasons. He is likely to retain those duties again in his senior season.
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