South Carolina Football: Top Stories to Watch as Gamecock Fall Practice Begins
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier goes into the fall looking for his ninth SEC divisional championship and his seventh conference crown overall. His seven years at South Carolina have seen the Gamecocks grow from SEC Eastern Division also-ran to the very cusp of SEC conference champion.
This season the Gamecocks must replace former All-American receiver Alshon Jeffrey, first-round NFL draft choice defensive end Melvin Ingram and several other important pieces to their record setting 11 win season of 2011.
Still, South Carolina is one of the preseason favorites to win the Eastern Division and make the trip to the championship game in Atlanta this December. There is plenty of returning talent—along with some highly touted recruits—to support the high expectations for 2012.
With a season-opening conference game looming, Carolina must address several areas of the team during fall camp. Once done, they can turn their full attention to the Vanderbilt matchup.
Several positions need to be solidified and questions answered through the fall practice.
Follow me—as I give you the five major areas Carolina must address before the season begins.
1: Who Will Replace Alshon Jeffery as the No. 1 Receiving Target?
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Jeffery was much more than just a good receiver. He was a difference-maker. Though he was an All-American in 2010, his numbers fell off last year. Not as a result of what he was or wasn't doing but of the inability of the Gamecocks to get him the football.
The issues with Stephen Garcia, along with Connor Shaw being brought along slowly, meant fewer opportunities for Jeffery.
Regardless, he still made many big-time catches to help bail out the Gamecocks when they needed it most. For the Gamecocks to be explosive in the pass game a new leader—capable of being a difference-maker—must be found.
Last season's No. 2 receiver, junior Ace Sanders had 383 yards on 16 receptions. He is fast and capable, but his size (listed at 5'8", 175) is a limiting factor.
New recruit, Shaq Roland (6'1", 173), a Rivals 4-star-rated receiver from Lexington and No. 1 in the state, may be the answer. He will have a shot at earning the second starting position.
These are the two front-runners at the position. A couple of others to watch are sophomores Damiere Byrd and Bruce Ellington. Both are under six feet but Ellington has some girth at 200 pounds.
There currently is no one with that 6'5" frame and 220 pounds that can out jump and take away pop ups from defensive backs. DL Moore is tall at 6'5" but slight at 198 lb. Still, those passes should be very few and far between. Great hands and ball-hawking instincts still go a long way at the position.
2: Is Lattimore Completely Healthy and Is the Run Game Good to Go Either Way?
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The short answer is yes. It can be made to work with or without Lattimore. Obviously, it will work much better with him, though.
There were unexpected dividends that South Carolina earned while Lattimore missed the last half of the season with an ACL injury last year. Then-true freshman Brandon Wilds took over and ran for 486 yards (average 4.5) and then-junior Kenny Miles added 204 more.
With Marcus Lattimore returning and the experience gained by Wilds and Miles last year, this unit is much deeper than 2011.
The Gamecocks plan on allowing their star running back more off time during games. This should help keep him healthy and fresh throughout the games and the season.
Add to the mix talented redshirt freshman Shon Carson and Wildcat formation runner Bruce Ellington, and South Carolina has one of the best running back units in college football.
This unit should be ready. The main questions to be answered this fall will be about the order of the rotation and when it occurs.
3: Who Will Back Up Connor Shaw at Quarterback?
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Connor Shaw enters fall camp as the undisputed starting quarterback for South Carolina in 2012.
The upcoming battle will decide who will be his No. 2. Everybody knows the importance of that position. So, it is important that the coaches pick that player in the first couple of weeks of camp, if possible.
The candidates are:
Tanner McEvoy (6'6", 209 lb.) R - Freshman
I say his current status as main backup is doubtful for this year, though his future is bright overall. He was just arrested for consuming alcohol and driving—and speeding in North Carolina last week. If the guy wasn't fourth string, he likely will be now. He just received suspension No. 1 from the team. After the trials of Garcia, I don't see Coach Spurrier going down this road again if at all possible.
Dylan Thompson (6'-3", 212 lb.) R - Sophomore
Played in four games last year. Completed both passes he threw for 17 yards. He was the solid No. 2 coming out of spring camp.
Seth Strickland (6'-2", 195 lb.)
Senior walk on who holds for extra points and field goals. He may well earn a scholarship offer before camp ends this year.
A true freshman who just arrived on campus in July. They are planning to redshirt him this year. His Pennsylvania high school numbers rated No. 2 in the state all time—that's cradle of quarterbacks, Pennsylvania—where many of the best played as kids.
4: Who Will Replace Defensive Tackle Travian Robertson?
Three of the four spots on the South Carolina defensive line are set. Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor on each end and Kelcy Quarles one of the tackles. That leaves one tackle position to fill this fall.
After spring practice, the leader for the position is senior Byron Jerideau (6'1", 316 lb.). He has the most experience, seeing five games with 10 tackles in 2010 and playing some in all 13 games last year.
Other players vying for the position include: redshirt freshman Gerald Dixon (6'3", 304 lbs.), not to be confused with his brother, Gerald G. Dixon, who plays defensive end. Also sophomore JT Surrat (6'2", 295 lbs.) and redshirt freshman Phillip Dukes (6'3", 306 lbs.). All of these guys are athletic and should compete.
Assuming Jerideau holds on to the starting job, the others will make for a strong five-man rotation on the defensive line. This bodes well for both this season and next year.
5: Replacing the Kickers
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South Carolina must replace both punter Joey Scribner-Howard and kicker Jay Wooten.
The punter will likely be sophomore Patrick Fish or junior Mike Williamson. Williamson was a walk-on transfer from Columbia University, where he averaged 40 yards per punt in 2009. Fish lost the battle to be the punter last year. Right now, I say go Fish! as he will likely win that job.
Nick St. Germain, who is the first kicker the school has recruited and given a scholarship since Succop, will likely win the job provided he isn't starstruck in camp. If he isn't ready, it will fall on either redshirt freshman Landon Ard or senior Adam Yates.
Overall, the kicking duties look to transition smoothly. It is simply a question of which kickers perform best during camp.