July 28, 2014
The South Carolina Gamecock football team will open fall camp on Friday, August 1. The first week of practices, which are open to the public, will begin at 7:15 p.m. at the Bluff Road practice fields, across the street from Williams-Brice Stadium.
Been there. Done that.
First in 2011. Then again in 2012. And for a third-straight time in 2013.
* 11-2 overall.
* 6-2 in the SEC.
* New Year's Day bowl win.
* Top-10 finish in the national polls.
For three straight seasons South Carolina has been hobnobbing with the elite programs of the college football world. The Gamecocks are one of only three teams, along with Alabama and Oregon, to finish in the Top-10 in the country in each of the last three seasons. They are also one of only 12 teams with 40 or more wins over the past four campaigns and have been ranked for a school-record 64 consecutive polls, tying for the fifth-longest current streak in the nation.
But there's still more to be accomplished. The Gamecocks have fallen short in their quest for the "holy grail" - to capture an SEC Championship. Since reaching the title game in 2010, Carolina has defeated the Eastern Division champion in each of the past three seasons, only to come up a game short of a trip to Atlanta.
Could 2014 be the year of the Gamecock?
Only time will tell, but the Gamecocks will try to capitalize on the momentum they've built and have that one goal of an SEC title in mind as they embark on year 10 of the Steve Spurrier Era in what has become the "Golden Age" of South Carolina football history.
Buoyed by the return of 56 lettermen, including 16 starters from a squad that has to be regarded as the best team in school history following a No. 4 finish in both national polls, the Gamecocks have built their program to where they can withstand the loss of the winningest quarterback in school history along with the first player taken in the NFL Draft, and still be considered one of the favorites in the SEC East and a preseason top-10 candidate again in 2014.
Once again, the road to the Georgia Dome and the SEC Championship Game will be challenging. The Gamecocks will put their 18-game home winning streak, the nation's longest, on the line right away, as they open the season on Thursday, August 28, against Texas A&M. That contest will also be the first game on the new SEC Network. After a non-conference home game against East Carolina, the Gamecocks will face four SEC Eastern Division foes over a four-week stretch, with Georgia, Vanderbilt, Missouri and Kentucky on the docket. The Georgia game is always an early season litmus test, Vandy has been much-improved but will be breaking in a new head coach, Missouri is the defending East champions, and Kentucky has some positive momentum after back-to-back strong recruiting classes. After an off week and a date with FCS Furman, the Gamecocks will wrap up their SEC slate with contests against defending SEC champion Auburn, Tennessee, which handed Carolina one of its two losses a season ago, and a hungry Florida squad, with two of those tilts coming on the road. Non-conference games on the opposite ends of the familiarity spectrum wrap up the season, as the Gamecocks will face South Alabama for the first time ever, before wrapping up the season with the 112th edition of the Palmetto State Showdown against Clemson. Carolina will be looking to extend its record to six-straight wins over their instate rivals.
The Carolina offense officially returns eight starters, including four on the offensive line, from a squad that averaged 34 points per game a season ago, while setting a school record with 5,880 total yards. Gone are three pretty good ones in quarterback Connor Shaw, wide receiver and two-sport standout Bruce Ellington, and two-year starter at right guard, Ronald Patrick. Senior signal-caller Dylan Thompson has been waiting patiently for his chance to take over the reins. He will be aided by a deep backfield that includes a possible Heisman Trophy candidate in Mike Davis, along with Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson, and redshirt freshman David Williams. The wide receivers and tight ends return en masse, with the exception of Ellington. Shaq Roland and Pharoh Cooper are two players the Carolina coaches want to see with the ball in their hands. The veteran offensive line features three players that have started at least two seasons and should be one of the league's, if not country's, best. The Gamecocks return 78 percent of their rushing yards, 26 percent of their passing yards and 76 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago.
There's no question the Gamecocks will miss Connor Shaw, who not only may have been the most valuable player but was certainly the most underrated from a season ago. All Shaw did was throw for 24 touchdowns with just one interception. But Shaw may be missed more for being able to keep drives alive with his legs and scrambling ability. He left with a school-record 27 victories, including a perfect 17-0 record at Williams-Brice Stadium. But the cupboard is far from bare. Senior Dylan Thompson has proven he can win at this level and is ready to seize the moment. Thompson is 3-0 as a starter, including a win at Clemson to cap the 2012 regular season. He also helped the Gamecocks hand UCF its only loss of the 2013 campaign on the road in Orlando. Thompson completed 58.4 percent of his passes a season ago for 783 yards with four touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Connor Mitch came out of the spring listed second on the depth chart, but will continue to get pressure for that role from redshirt sophomore Brendan Nosovitch and possibly walk-on Perry Orth. Mitch and Nosovitch each had outstanding prep careers and have done their due diligence of learning the offense while apprenticing behind Shaw and Thompson. Now they just need to show their wares on the field. Walk-ons Austin Hails and Grant Davitte provide additional depth. True freshman Michael Scarnecchia joins the fold in the fall and will likely redshirt in his first campaign for the Garnet & Black.
What was thought to be a possible weakness heading into last season following the loss of Gamecock great Marcus Lattimore, proved to be a strength in the Carolina attack. Mike Davis burst onto the scene and made people forget about Lattimore, at least to some extent. Davis turned in the fourth-best rushing season in school history with 1,183 yards, and garnered most of his yards in about two-thirds of the season as he logged only 125 yards combined over the last four contests. Now a junior, Davis has the strength to run between the tackles, but also has the speed to break a long run, with four runs of 50 or more yards under his belt, including a pair of 75-yard jaunts. Some prognosticators have gone so far as to put Davis on their early list of Heisman hopefuls. What may hold Davis back from that high acclaim is the quality depth in the backfield which may limit his number of carries. Brandon Wilds has proven to be more than just an adequate backup. Wilds was injured for much of the 2013 campaign after sitting out the 2012 season as a redshirt, but logged three 100-yard rushing games as a true freshman in 2011. The junior averaged over five yards a carry last season. Running backs coach Everette Sands is also looking for ways to get Shon Carson more involved in the offense. Carson, who had a critical 58-yard scamper in the win over Florida last season, went through spring drills this year after playing baseball during the spring of 2013. He was turning in a fine spring, before suffering a broken collarbone in the Spring Game. Redshirt freshman David Williams is one to keep an eye on as well as he has all the tools to be a special back and the back of the future. Walk-on Devin Potter adds depth. Darius Paulk, the brother of former Gamecock linebacker Rodney Paulk, and Rod Talley both impressed the coaches during the spring, but will not be eligible this fall due to NCAA transfer rules.
The Gamecocks look to be closer to full strength in the fall at fullback after playing with very few numbers in the spring. Walk-ons Connor McLaurin and Jordan Diaz are listed one-two on the preseason depth chart, but neither made an appearance during the spring due to injuries. McLaurin suffered a broken tibia in practice just days before the Capital One Bowl, while Diaz suffered a season-ending left knee injury in the Florida contest. Their injuries opened the door for a couple of other players to showcase their talents. Redshirt freshman Gerald Turner, who made the transition to the offensive side of the ball in the spring, and Garrison Gist, a beast in the weight room who saw action in just two games a year ago, including the bowl win over Wisconsin, took the bulk of the reps in the spring. Walk-on Brandon Sturdivant adds depth. True freshman Joe Blue will have an opportunity to step in immediately and see playing time this fall.
The Gamecocks have churned out a host of big time wide receivers since the Spurriers arrival in Columbia, as the Head Ball Coach has always been known for "pitching the ball around the park" and Steve Spurrier Jr. has coached up the talent he has had on the squad. The most likely candidate to follow in the footsteps of Sidney Rice, Kenny McKinley, Alshon Jeffery, Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington is junior Shaq Roland. After a so-so freshman season in which he was still learning the offense, Roland burst onto the scene last season with a host of acrobatic catches and showed why he was the 2011 "Mr. Football" in the state of South Carolina. Roland averaged 18.2 yards on 25 catches in 2013, with five of those finding the endzone. He finished the season with a bang, hauling in six catches for 112 yards in the Capital One Bowl win over Wisconsin. The fastest player on the squad is senior wideout Damiere Byrd. Byrd was limited in the spring after injuring his knee just prior to the bowl game, but will be ready to go in the fall. He logged 33 catches for 575 yards a year ago, 17.4 yards per catch, with four scores. Roland and Byrd give the Gamecocks a pair of deep threats that can stretch any defense. Sophomore Pharoh Cooper enters the fall as the third receiver atop the depth chart. Cooper showed his versatility last season, playing wide receiver, returning kickoffs and punts, and taking snaps in the Wildcat formation while earning All-Freshman SEC honors as both an all-purpose back and return specialist. He is a player who the coaches want with the ball in his hands and figures to play a significant role in the Gamecock attack in 2014. Senior Nick Jones is a steadying influence in the receiving corps. Although he is not blessed with the same physical tools of many of the other wideouts, Jones is just a guy who catches the ball when it's thrown to him. He scored five TD's last season, including two at Georgia and the game-tying score late in regulation at Missouri. Spurrier Jr. will continue to monitor which other receivers are ready to step into the rotation along the previously mentioned quartet. Those who figure to have the best opportunity to make their presence felt include three juniors in Shamier Jeffery, the younger brother of NFL All-Pro receiver Alshon Jeffery, Kane Whitehurst, the cousin of NFL quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, and K.J. Brent. A trio of walk-ons, including Andrew Bunch, Carlton Heard and Matthew Harvey round out the receiving corps. Heard, a transfer from Gardner-Webb, impressed the coaching staff while working with the scout team a year ago. Walk-ons Matrick Belton and Sean Odom joined the squad in the spring. Three touted recruits, including Shaq Davidson, Terry Googer and Tyshun "Deebo" Samuel, will try to make an impression this fall. Caleb Hines is a walk-on who joins the squad for the first time this fall.
The Gamecocks are deep and talented at the tight end position, as everyone who contributed returns from a year ago. The returning trio of scholarship players all have the size and speed to present difficult matches for a defense. Senior Rory "Busta" Anderson, a 6-5, 230-pound target, has shown big play capabilities, but did not find the end zone a year ago after logging eight touchdowns in his first two campaigns. He suffered a torn triceps muscle late in the spring, so he enters the fall with some uncertainty. Jerell Adams is more than an adequate replacement should Anderson not be ready when the season commences. Adams, who checks in a 6-6 and 227-pounds, earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team two years ago. Anderson and Adams combined to catch 30 passes a year ago for over 400 yards. Drew Owens, a 6-6, 242-pound junior, will have an opportunity to work his way into the mix as well. Newcomers Jacob August, Kevin Crosby and Nick McGriff, add depth at the position. Crosby is the only scholarship player of that trio.
Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott welcomes back a deep, talented and veteran group of offensive linemen that saw just one departure, that of two-year starting right guard Ronald Patrick. Coach Spurrier has noted that he has not had a first-team All-SEC lineman in his tour at South Carolina, and hopes this group will produce at least one this season. The most likely candidates are senior left guard A.J. Cann, senior left tackle Corey Robinson and junior right tackle Brandon Shell. Cann, who some consider the top interior lineman in the league, has made a team-high 38 starts over the past three seasons. A leader both on and off the field, he was selected by his peers as a team captain last fall, the lone junior among the four captains. Robinson has progressed from a lightly-regarded recruit to a potential high-round draft pick. At 6-8 and 344 pounds, he has the size that make NFL scouts take notice. He has started 22 games over the past two seasons. Shell has the NFL bloodlines, as his great uncle, Art, was one of the best to ever play the game. He has started 23 games over the past two years. Junior Mike Matulis, who started 10 games in his first two seasons at Carolina, redshirted during the 2013 season while recovering from shoulder surgery, then moved from tackle to right guard in the spring and earned a spot with the first-team unit. Redshirt sophomores Cody Waldrop and Clayton Stadnik split duties at the center position a year ago and both proved capable of handling those duties this fall. Stadnik's twin brother, Brock Stadnik, and junior Will Sport, both gained game-time experience last season and, along with redshirt freshman D.J. Park, give the Gamecocks quality depth at guard. Redshirt sophomore Mason Zandi, figures to back up Robinson at the left tackle position, but also saw some action last season as a blocking tight end. Redshirt freshman Na'Ty Rodgers and senior Cody Gibson are listed in the preseason depth chart as backups for Shell at right tackle. Rodgers was highly touted coming in, while Gibson has been plagued by injuries during his Carolina career. Redshirt freshman Alan Knott returns as a backup center. Newcomers Donell Stanley and Malik Young add depth.
South Carolina has built a reputation for having one of the better defenses in the SEC and in the country. In 2013, the Gamecocks ranked in the top-20 nationally in scoring defense (12th), passing defense (12th) and total defense (19th). Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and his staff will look to replace five key members of that unit, including All-America defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, and fifth-year seniors Chaz Sutton and Jimmy Legree, along with cornerback Victor Hampton. The strength of this year's unit should come in the linebacking corps, where everyone returns, led by Skai Moore and Kaiwan Lewis, two of the team's top three tacklers, along with Spur Sharrod Golightly, a second-team All-SEC pick. The safety position appears to be in good hands with four experienced players returning. The questions will come along the defensive line, where J.T. Surratt is the lone returning starter, and at cornerback, where departures left the ranks a little thin in the spring, but reinforcements are on the way this fall.
Defensive line coach Deke Adams will have his work cut out for him this season after losing three of his four starters, including two in Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles who earned All-America accolades. While the cupboard is far from bare, the coaches may have to be a little more creative with their schemes than in the past. Eight players who earned letters last season return, led by fifth-year senior J.T. Surratt. Surratt, a defensive tackle, is the lone returning starter and the most experienced player on the line with 14 career starts under his belt, and figures to earn one of the starting spots in the interior again this season. But the competition will be stiff. Juniors Gerald Dixon Jr. and Phillip Dukes, along with sophomores Deon Green, Abu Lamin and Kelsey Griffin, will all have an opportunity to work into the rotation. Dixon Jr. is listed as the probable starter next to Surratt, while Lamin is a junior college transfer playing in his first season for the Garnet & Black. Dukes and Green have been in the program for a number of years and look to make an impact this fall. Taylor Stallworth adds depth as true freshmen. The bigger holes to fill come at the defensive end position following the departure of Clowney, the first pick in the NFL Draft, and fifth-year senior Chaz Sutton. A pair of sophomores, Gerald Dixon, the half-brother of Gerald Dixon Jr., and Darius English, enter the fall listed atop the depth chart. Dixon impressed in a backup role last season, while English has added some bulk to his six-foot, six-inch frame in hopes of becoming more of any every-down lineman. Junior Mason Harris provides speed off the corner, while classmate Cedrick Cooper looks to find a home at defensive end after playing linebacker throughout his Gamecock career. Redshirt freshmen Devin Washington, who missed virtually all of last fall following a concussion, and David Johnson also will try to get in the mix. Walk-on junior Michael Washington and freshman newcomer Blake McClain round out the group of defensive ends.
Considered the weakest link of the Gamecock defense entering the 2013 season, the linebacking corps now represents the strength of the defense. While still very young with no seniors who garner any significant playing time on the roster, this athletic group gained valuable experience last season and grew up as the season progressed. With more comfort in the schemes designed by Lorenzo Ward, this deep and talented unit that likes to hit should be even more effective in 2014. Junior Kaiwan Lewis and sophomore Skai Moore enter the fall atop the depth chart. Lewis was third on the team in tackles a year ago, while Moore paced the squad in both tackles (56) and interceptions (4) while earning second-team Freshman All-America honors in his first collegiate campaign. T.J. Holloman, who started three games a season ago, is a very smart player who could play either the Mike or Will position. Marcquis Roberts was finally able to stay healthy for an entire season and ranked fifth on the squad in tackles while starting nine contests. True sophomore Jonathan Walton is a player who the coaches like and was considered the "Most Improved" linebacker in the spring. Walk-ons Cedrick Malone and Kyle Morini add depth. The coaching staff is anxious to see how quickly newcomer Bryson Allen-Williams works his way into significant playing time in 2014.
One of the most important positions of the Gamecocks' 4-2-5 defense is the Spur, a hybrid linebacker/safety position. All three players who worked at the position in 2013 return this fall, led by second-team All-SEC performer Sharrod Golightly. The senior who followed in the footsteps of NFL players Antonio Allen and DeVonte Holloman, who played the position previously, registered 47 tackles including 6.0 tackles for loss last season. Golightly will be pushed for playing time by a pair of sophomores in Jordan Diggs and Larenz Bryant. Both Diggs (6-0, 217) and Bryant (6-0, 220) are a little bigger than Golightly (5-10, 187) and give Spurs coach Kirk Botkin different options to consider.
The biggest concern for the Gamecock coaches entering the fall may lie at the cornerback position. Gone are returning starters Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton, along with a top reserve in Ahmad Christian. Those departures left that unit very thin for secondary coach Grady Brown in the spring, but reinforcements are on the way this fall in what could be a wide-open race for the starting positions. Fifth-year senior and former walk-on Sidney Rhodes is penciled in as one starter entering the fall. Rhodes has earned a pair of letters during his Gamecock career, but his work has primarily come on special teams. Sophomore Rico McWilliams, who saw limited duty last season as he continued to recover from a knee injury, is listed as the other starter. Sophomore Jamari Smith has bounced back-and-forth between cornerback and tailback, but seems settled now in the secondary. He was able to take a lot of reps in the spring as he continues to learn the position. Redshirt freshman Ali Groves was the only other scholarship cornerback on the roster in the spring, but was limited while rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Safety Brison Williams could slide over to corner in a pinch, while walk-ons Shannon James and Demetrius Smalls add depth. The question entering the fall is which of the true freshman will grab the opportunity to gain early playing time. The quartet of Wesley Green, Al Harris Jr., Chris Lammons and D.J. Smith will be watched closely, and some will be asked to contribute immediately.
As is the case at the linebacker position, the Gamecock safety corps returns intact from the 2013 campaign. The leader of the secondary is senior Brison Williams. Williams has made 24 starts, second on the squad and most on the defensive side of the ball. A very intelligent player, Williams can play either of the two safety positions and also worked extensively at cornerback in the spring. With Williams penciled in to start at the strong safety position, sophomore Chaz Elder gets the nod at the free safety slot. Elder made six starts a year ago, gaining more action as the season progressed. The Gamecocks have depth at the position, as veterans Kadetrix Marcus and T.J. Gurley back up Williams and Elder, respectively. Marcus, a senior, made seven starts a year ago, while Gurley, who was impressive two years ago before suffering a knee injury, was named the "Most Improved" safety during the spring. Redshirt sophomore Chris Moody was pressed into duty last season and gained some valuable experience as well while earning his first letter. Redshirt freshman Jasper Sasser and walk-ons Garrett Shank and Benjamin Russell add depth, along with newcomer Darin Smalls.
The Gamecocks return all of their special teams performers from a year ago, so coordinator Joe Robinson has a pretty good idea of who his guys will be in 2014. Elliott Fry, who walked on to the squad last summer, proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the season, as he developed into a Freshman All-SEC placekicker. Pharoh Cooper also earned Freshman All-SEC recognition as a return specialist. Tyler Hull (punter), Landon Ard (kickoffs), Ryland Culbertson (short snapper) and Drew Williams (deep snapper) all return as well.
For the first time in four years, the Gamecocks will not be breaking in a new placekicker in 2014. Sophomore Elliott Fry became the first freshman to placekick in a season opener since Courtney Leavitt in 1996 when he stepped onto the field in the 2013 season opener against North Carolina. Fry went on to convert 15-of-18 field goal attempts and all but one of his school-record 55 extra point attempts while earning Freshman All-SEC accolades. Junior Landon Ard backs up Fry in the field goal/extra point department, and returns as the Gamecocks' No. 1 kickoff artist. Ard is blessed with a strong leg, as witnessed by his 36 touchbacks in 83 kickoffs, but needs to continue to work on his consistency, as he was plagued by five kicks that sailed out of bounds. Newcomers Jonas Price and Zach Cimaglia also provide depth.
Senior Tyler Hull arrived on campus as a walk-on after fall camp opened in 2012 and quickly established himself as the team's top punter, a role he has not relinquished since. The two-year starter averaged 37.8-yards per punt a year ago, down from his 39.4-yard average in 2012, but consistently gets the ball off quickly. Patrick Fish is back for his final season in the Garnet & Black and will continue to push Hull for the starting duties. Newcomer Jonas Price will also be given an opportunity to showcase their talents.
The Gamecocks split the duties of the long and short snapper a year ago and likely will go that route again in 2014, as both players return. Senior Ryland Culbertson handled the short snapping duties on extra points and field goals for the first time in 2013, helping freshman kicker Elliott Fry to a record-setting season. True freshman Drew Williams quickly asserted himself as the top long snapper and figures to hold that position again this fall. Junior Coleman Harley returns as a backup for both Culbertson and Williams.
Pharoh Cooper is the incumbent at the kick returner position. Cooper averaged 22.4-yards per return a year ago, earning a spot on the Freshman All-SEC squad as a return specialist. As is the case each year, Coach Robinson will have an opportunity early in fall camp to evaluate several other candidates, which may include Damiere Byrd, Shon Carson, and/or one of the incoming freshmen.
As is the case at kick returner, sophomore Pharoh Cooper is on the odds-on-favorite to handle the punt return chores in 2014. Cooper returns nine punts a year ago, but averaged just 4.4 yards per return in a part of the game that the Gamecocks could see some improvement. Several other candidates could emerge when fall camp opens.
Reserve punter Patrick Fish handled the holding duties, working with snapper Ryland Culbertson and placekicker Elliott Fry, in what turned out to be a record-setting season. Fish is the favorite to handle those duties again this year, with backup quarterback Brendan Nosovitch also capable of handling those duties.
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