Football Spring Preview
March 14, 2011
Times are a changin' for South Carolina Football.
For the first time since joining the Southeastern Conference, the Gamecocks will enter a season as the defending Eastern Division champions.
With 48 lettermen returning, including 13 starters from a team that went 9-5 and finished 22nd in both major polls in 2010, the Gamecocks figure to be an odds-on-favorite to repeat as the Eastern Division representative in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. They will hold the distinction of being the hunted, rather than the hunter for the first time in head coach Steve Spurrier's seven seasons in Columbia. Many of the early projections have the Gamecocks among the nation's top 15 teams entering the 2011 campaign.
When Coach Spurrier came to Carolina prior to the 2005 season, he asked, "Why not us? Why not Carolina?" The program continues to make strides in becoming "a nationally prominent program that competes for championships," the mantra that Athletics Director Eric Hyman has instilled throughout the athletics department. To wit, the 2010 Gamecocks:
* Won their first SEC Eastern Division crown.
* Posted a nine-win season for just the third time in school history.
* Defeated the nation's top-ranked team (Alabama) for the first time in school history. They knocked off the No. 4 team (Ole Miss) in 2009.
* Won in "The Swamp" for the first time in school history. The Gamecocks had been 0-12 all-time when playing on Florida's home field.
* Had a senior class put together a school record 29 victories in its four years in the Garnet & Black. The previous two senior classes left with 28 wins over its four-year stints, something that had been accomplished just once previously (1987-90).
* Posted the seventh-straight non-losing season, matching the longest stretch in school history, set from 1928-34.
* Were bowl-eligible for the seventh-consecutive year, the longest streak in the modern era.
* Had a head coach take them to his fifth bowl game in six seasons. No other coach in school history has gone to more than three bowls.
* Have won 16 games over the past two seasons, something that has been done just three times previously in school history - 16 wins in both 1979-80 and 1987-88, and a school-record 17 victories from 2000-01.
* Put together a Rivals.com top-25 recruiting class for the seventh-straight year.
* Developed a distinctive home field advantage. The Gamecocks won six of seven games at Williams-Brice Stadium in both 2009 and 2010.
* Posted a team GPA of 2.779 during the fall semester, the highest on record.
Several questions will need to be answered if the Gamecocks are to repeat as Eastern Division Champions. 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:
* What can junior wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore do for an encore? The duo, which is arguably the best one-two punch in the country, will keep several defensive coordinators awake at night this fall.
* How quickly will the offensive line, which lost two starters, jell, now that second-year coach Shawn Elliott has brought some stability to that area?
* Can Shaq Wilson regain his form and fill the gap at linebacker after missing nearly all of the 2010 season with a hamstring injury?
* Can the talented secondary become more consistent in its play after surrendering several big plays in 2010?
Those and other questions will begin to be answered when the Gamecocks open their spring practice schedule on Tuesday, March 15. The allotted 15 practices will wrap up with the annual Garnet & Black Spring Game on Saturday, April 9.
The Carolina offense officially returns seven starters, including most of the key playmakers from last season's squad that averaged over 30 points and nearly 400 yards of total offense per game. Gone are captain Patrick DiMarco, who played both tight end and fullback, wide receiver Tori Gurley, who skipped his final two campaigns to test the waters with the NFL, and a pair of offensive linemen in Garrett Chisolm and Hutch Eckerson. Offensive tackle Jarriel King and running back Brian Maddox also saw considerable action during their Gamecock careers. Led by All-American receiver Alshon Jeffery, National Freshman of the Year Marcus Lattimore and two-year starting signal-caller Stephen Garcia, the Gamecocks return 81 percent of their rushing yards, 100 percent of their passing yards and 80 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago.
QUARTERBACK: One of just three quarterbacks in school history to throw for more than 6,000 yards in his career, Stephen Garcia returns for his final season in a Gamecock uniform. Garcia, who has started every game over the past two seasons, owns a 17-13 mark as a starter. He enters the 2011 campaign as the SEC's active leader in career passing yards. He threw for over 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns in 2010 while completing a career-best 64 percent of his passes. Sophomore Connor Shaw has been on campus for a full year now and begins his second spring with the squad. He quickly moved up the depth chart a year ago and into the backup role behind Garcia by the end of the spring. Shaw, the son of a coach who is considered somewhat of a "gym rat," gained some valuable experience last fall, appearing in nine games while completing 23-of-33 passes for 223 yards and a score. He will continue to push Garcia for playing time and looks to be ready to take over the reins without a dropoff in production should Garcia struggle. Both players also have the ability to run, as they ranked third and fourth on the squad in rushing yards a season ago. Junior walk-on Seth Strickland did some good things last spring, with his performance elevating him to the number three spot on the depth chart and a regular spot on the travel roster. He also serves as the holder on special teams. Sophomore Andrew Clifford begins his third year in the program and should have a better grasp of the system. He and redshirt freshman Dylan Thompson will need to take advantage of their reps in the spring to play their way into a viable option in the fall. Stephon Gilmore has made a few cameos over the last two seasons when the Gamecocks have gone into a "Wildcat" formation. Gilmore, a former high school quarterback, is certainly capable of throwing the ball as well as running, as he has completed 2-of-3 passes for 68 yards.
TAILBACK: The Gamecocks have one of the nation's best in sophomore Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore, who was everyone's National Freshman of the Year, rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns, easily breaking the school's freshman marks and producing the best rushing season at Carolina since Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers dominated opponents back in 1979-80. Lattimore has worked hard in the weight room and enters spring drills at a solid 231 pounds on his six-foot frame to prepare himself for the pounding of another SEC season. He will be backed up by a pair of juniors in Kenny Miles and Eric Baker. Miles has made eight career starts and has recorded three 100-yard rushing games in his career. He led the squad with 626 yards on the ground in 2009. Baker actually went into spring drills in 2009 atop the depth chart, but injuries have hampered him over the past two seasons. He looks to be healthy again this spring and hopes to show the form he had prior to the injuries. Junior Jacob Baker and senior Josh Hinch, a pair of walk-ons, round out the tailback position.
FULLBACK: The Gamecocks used a lot of one-back sets during the 2010 campaign, but when they did have a two-back set, the fullback duties were in the capable hands of Patrick DiMarco. With Marcus Lattimore as the tailback running roughshod over the defenses, the fullback's role primarily becomes that of a blocker. Junior walk-on Dalton Wilson is capable of being that lead back and figures to get the first shot to replace DiMarco. Wilson could also cross-train at the tight end position in a role similar to that of DiMarco's. Sophomore Matt Coffee will challenge Wilson for the starting nod. Both players saw the bulk of their action in 2010 on special teams, with Wilson being a two-year letterwinner. Sophomore walk-on Billy Byrne, a tough-nosed player, makes the transition from the defensive side of the ball to fullback this spring.
WIDE RECEIVER: As is the case at tailback, the Gamecocks have one of the nation's best at wide receiver in junior Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery, who was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award and received several All-America accolades, re-wrote the South Carolina record books in 2010 with 88 receptions for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 17.2 yards per catch. Listed at 6-4 and 233 pounds and blessed with outstanding hands, excellent leaping ability and surprising speed, Jeffery is a load for any defensive back to handle. Junior D.L. Moore, who also stands six-foot-four, was a 12-game starter in 2010 and caught 17 passes including a pair for scores. He is also regarded as the best blocking wide receiver on the squad. With defenses focusing on Jeffery, Moore has the opportunity to have a big fall in 2011. Senior Jason Barnes, the third 6-4 wide receiver on the squad, will move to the slot receiver position vacated by Tori Gurley. Barnes, a fifth-year senior, has experience, with 60 catches in his career for 730 yards. At just 5-7, sophomore Ace Sanders is a change of pace from Barnes in the slot. Sanders may be the quickest and fastest receiver on the squad and also showed good hands as a true freshman, with 25 catches for 316 yards and two TDs. A pair of redshirt sophomores in Lamar Scruggs and DeAngelo Smith, figure to battle it out for playing time behind Jeffery. Scruggs had three catches for 53 yards last season, while Smith battled injuries. Both need a solid spring to work into regular action in the fall. Junior Bryce Sherman makes the transition from tailback to wide receiver this spring in an attempt to find ways to get him the ball more often. The former track sprinter handled the bulk of the kickoff return duties in 2010. Redshirt freshman Nick Jones will get a chance to showcase his talents as well during the spring with an opportunity to work his way into the regular rotation in the fall.
TIGHT END: Junior Justice Cunningham is the lone returning healthy player with any game experience at the tight end position. An excellent blocker, Cunningham is an important cog to the Gamecocks' running attack. He could also end up taking some reps at fullback in the spring. Sophomore Chaun Gresham and redshirt freshman Corey Simmons move over from the defensive side of the ball to full-time work at tight end this spring. Both seem excited about the move with an opportunity to get on the field quicker. Another player who will be switching positions to tight end this spring is walk-on Payton Brady. Brady joined the squad last fall as a quarterback and his time in the meeting room gives him a good understanding of the offense. Mike Triglia joins Cunningham as the only experienced tight ends on the roster, but the junior will sit out the spring after injuring his knee during the bowl week in December.
OFFENSIVE LINE: For the first time since 2008, the Gamecocks have their offensive line coach returning. Shawn Elliott a Camden, S.C. product, brought some of the same schemes that helped Appalachian State to three straight FCS Championships to Columbia last season. The Gamecocks lose a trio of linemen in Garrett Chisolm, Hutch Eckerson and Jarriel King, who made 67 career starts between them. However, the cupboard, while very thin in the spring with just 10 healthy bodies, is not bare. T.J. Johnson, who has started every game over the past two seasons, returns as the starting center. He will be flanked on one side by senior offensive guard Rokevious Watkins, a former junior college player who started every game in 2010. Sixth-year senior Terrence Campbell, who started in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and has made 13 career starts, is penciled in as the starter at left guard. Campbell has battled injuries throughout his career, but has been a serviceable player when called upon. Senior Kyle Nunn, who made nine starts in 2010 including seven at left tackle, returns as the probable starter at that position. The only spot along the offensive front that has no returning experience is at right tackle. Redshirt freshman Cody Gibson and junior college transfer Kaleb Broome figure to battle it out in the spring. Both are looking for a good spring to separate themselves from the competition. Second-year players A.J. Cann and Ronald Patrick are listed as second teamers at left and right guard, respectively, entering the spring, but both could push for consistent playing time after an off-season in the weight room. Corey Robinson, who is the Gamecocks' biggest offensive lineman at 6-6 and 333 pounds, backs up Nunn at left tackle, while walk-on Travis Ford is listed as the number two center behind Johnson entering the spring. Fifth-year senior Ryan Broadhead will sit out the spring after suffering a knee injury last year.
The Carolina defense, the team's strong suit over the past few seasons, took a little bit of a step back in 2010 and now looks to regain its place among the nation's elite. With six starters returning, along with 2009 starting linebacker Shaq Wilson, the talent and experience is there to have another championship-caliber unit. While some key players like Ladi Ajiboye, Cliff Matthews, Josh Dickerson, Tony Straughter and Chris Culliver will be missed, the coaching staff is confident it has the horses to replace them without missing much of a beat. Ellis Johnson and staff will begin to plug those gaps this spring, but some of the players who may be taking the field for the Gamecock defense this fall, may not arrive until later.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Brad Lawing's defensive front was certainly a bright spot last season, as the unit led the charge with a school-record 41 sacks, ranking seventh in the nation, while holding opponents to just 112.4 yards per game on the ground, the nation's 12th-best mark. The unit will certainly miss the experience and leadership that defensive end Cliff Matthews and defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye provided, as both of those players were four-year starters. The battle for playing time will intensify in the fall, so it will become paramount for those players available to have a good spring to solidify their spots. One player who would seemingly have a lock on a starting role is junior defensive end Devin Taylor. The 6-7, 248-pounder took the SEC by storm last season, earning first-team all-conference accolades after ranking among the leaders with 13.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The man in the middle is 6-4, 298-pound senior Travian Robertson. Robertson, considered the strongest player on the squad, will be limited in the spring while trying to safeguard his health for the fall. Senior Melvin Ingram, who had a banner year last fall, is listed as the starter at defensive end opposite Taylor. Ingram, who was used primarily in passing situations last season, led the team and was third in the SEC with 9.0 sacks. He can also move to the interior of the defensive line in certain packages. Junior Aldrick Fordham and freshman Kelcy Quarles figure to battle for the starting tackle slot vacated by Ajiboye. Fordham has more experience at this level and could also slide to the outside. Quarles, whose father, Buddy, played for the Gamecocks in the mid-80s, was highly touted when he originally signed with Carolina a year ago, but spent last fall at Fork Union to work on his grades. The coaches believe he has the potential to make an early impact. Sophomore Chaz Sutton is another player the staff is high on. Injuries have held him back to some extent, but a good spring could vault him into valuable minutes in the fall. Junior college transfer Byron Jerideau got his first taste of SEC football last fall and, with his weight under control at 315 pounds, should have more of an impact in the middle of the defensive line. Junior Kenny Davis needs to start tapping into his tremendous potential if he is going to be counted on in the rotation this fall. Senior Byron McKnight has primarily been a solid role player throughout his career. Redshirt freshman J.T. Surratt missed most of the fall while rehabbing a shoulder injury and hopes to be at full strength this spring to showcase the quickness and explosion that earned him a scholarship coming out of high school.
LINEBACKER: The Gamecocks lose their two starting linebackers in Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter, both of whom entered last spring as second team players, but their losses will be offset by the return of a healthy Shaq Wilson and Rodney Paulk. Wilson, who led the team in tackles in 2009, missed all but one game last season with a severe hamstring injury suffered on the first day of fall camp. He not only is a sure tackler, but is the "quarterback" of the defense from his Will linebacker position. Paulk, a sixth-year senior who has been hampered by injuries throughout his Gamecock career, hopes to be closer to 100 percent healthy for his final campaign in the Garnet & Black. Both players are very experienced and understand their assignments. A pair of juniors in Quin Smith and Reginald Bowens figure to be the top two backups. Smith has not spent much time at the position so still has a big upside and could develop into a top notch player. Bowens is as physcially talented as any of the linebackers but injuries have kept him from developing that potential. If he can stay healthy and get the reps he needs, he could play a key role this fall. Former junior college transfer Qua Gilchrist will miss spring ball after undergoing shoulder surgery. He had made strides in the fall of learning the system but now will have to wait until August to get back on the field. Antonio Allen and Damario Jeffery return as a solid one-two punch at the Spur linebacker position. Allen is a 6-2, 208-pound senior playmaker who should have a big final season. There's little drop off when Jeffery steps in for Allen. The 6-3, 230-pounder may eventually get a look at one of the interior linebacking positions. Sophomore Matt O'Brien is a solid walk-on who loves to hit.
CORNERBACK: The Gamecocks will be without the services of Chris Culliver, but have three capable cornerbacks who have played extensively throughout their careers. Junior Stephon Gilmore is an all-conference performer who, with more consistency, has the ability to be one of the nation's top cornerbacks. He will hold down the boundary corner spot for the third straight season. Senior Akeem Auguste returns to the cornerback position after spending last season at a safety position. His return to a position that he is more comfortable in playing should only help him produce a banner final campaign. He and senior C.C. Whitlock will compete at the field cornerback position. Whitlock is a capable player who has garnered a lot of playing time, including 10 career starts. Sophomore Jimmy Legree and senior Marty Markett also will challenge for playing time at the field corner spot. Legree has great leaping ability and good ball skills but needs to have a good spring to tap into that potential. Markett, a former sprinter on the Carolina track team, made an impact last fall on special teams, earning a pair of starts late in the season. A pair of redshirt freshmen in Cadarious Sanders and Victor Hampton, along with incoming freshman Martay Mattox, are listed behind Gilmore on the depth chart. All three have athleticism but need to continue to learn the system to gain the trust of the coaches to gain playing time.
SAFETY: With Akeem Auguste making the move to cornerback, the starting safety positions appear to be locked down heading into the spring with junior DeVonte Holloman returning at the strong safety position while junior D.J. Swearinger mans the free safety spot. Both players are talented and with another year under their belts, should be more consistent and make even more plays while becoming more vocal leaders on the field. Depth at the safety position beyond Holloman and Swearinger is mostly untested. Sophomore Corey Addison could work his way into the rotation at strong safety. He is listed ahead of newcomer Brison Williams at the position. Williams signed with the Gamecocks a year ago but spent last fall at Fork Union. Redshirt freshman Sharrod Golightly is listed on the second team at the free safety position. One of the challenges this spring facing Jeep Hunter, who takes over as the safeties coach after working with the tight ends last season, is getting Addison, WIlliams and Golightly ready to contribute as solid backups. Senior Alonzo Winfield provides veteran depth while junior walk-on Jared Shaw is a player who could help on special teams.
The Gamecock special teams unit will have a new look this season, as John Butler, the only new assistant coach on the staff, takes over as the special teams coordinator. Butler will have his hands full as he looks to replace Spencer Lanning, who has handled the punting duties for each of the past three years and the placekicking chores in each of the past two seasons. Butler will also need to replace deep snapper Charles Turner, who held that position for the past four seasons. The Gamecocks also need to shore up their return game, as they ranked 90th and 115th in the country in kickoff and punt returns, respectively, in 2010.
PLACEKICKER: Competition should be fierce this spring and may carry over into the fall for the duties as placekicker and kickoff specialist. Former North Carolina kicker Jay Wooten took over the kickoff duties part way through the 2010 season and held that spot throughout the remainder of the campaign. However, he is also a top candidate to serve as both the placekicker and punter, so Coach Butler will have to determine how much he will want to tax Wooten's leg, assuming he wins the battle for placekicker and/or punter. Senior Joey Scribner-Howard began the 2010 season as the kickoff specialist before losing his spot to Wooten. Scribner-Howard figures to challenge for the placekicking duties, but could also regain his spot as the kickoff specialist with a solid spring. Junior Adam Yates handled most of the kickoff duties in 2009 and has a strong leg. He could again be in the mix for regular duty. Junior Josh Newton adds depth at placekicker.
PUNTER: Jay Wooten and redshirt freshman Patrick Fish figure to be the top two competitors to replace Spencer Lanning as the starting punter in 2011. Fish is a rare commodity in that he came to Carolina on scholarship, rather than coming in as a walk-on and earning his way by his on-field performance. A pair of juniors in Eric Davis and C.J. Heinz will also get an opportunity to showcase their talents in the spring.
DEEP SNAPPER: Charles Turner gave the Gamecocks four solid years of both short and deep snapping. Junior Walker Inabinet saw his first game action against Troy in 2010, getting the nod to replace an injured Turner, and did an admirable job. He is the odds-on-favorite to win the important but often overlooked role. Sophomore walk-on Davis Moore will also get a look in the spring.
KICK RETURNER: Former track sprinter Bryce Sherman handled the bulk of the kickoff returns in 2010, but needs to improve on his 20.4 yard average. D.J. Swearinger had a few opportunities late in the season to showcase his skills and could be a candidate as well, although there will be several others who could figure in the mix before the Sept. 3 season opener against East Carolina, including some players who will not arrive until fall camp opens in August.
PUNT RETURNER: Stephon Gilmore and Ace Sanders split time on punt returns last season and both could again figure in the mix this season. As is the case at kick returner, there could be an opportunity for one of the freshman newcomers to find his way on the field, but that will not be determined until the fall camp is in full swing.
HOLDER: Reserve quarterback Seth Strickland took over the duties as the holder on the placements last season and heads into the spring as the likely candidate to retain those duties in 2011. Ace Sanders also showed an innate ability to handle the duties on the practice field last fall.