South Carolina Football: Winners & Losers from the Gamecocks' First Month

William Renken@@williamrenkenCorrespondent IIIOctober 2, 2012

South Carolina Football: Winners & Losers from the Gamecocks' First Month

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    Let's face it. It's much easier to write a piece entitled "Winners and Losers..." for a team that is 2-3 or 3-2 rather than 5-0. Nevertheless, the South Carolina Gamecocks are of the 5-0 variety and enjoyed a very successful September, setting the stage for an October that could put them in position to win their first SEC Championship.

    But, even so, there are still successes and opportunities the Gamecocks possess through their first month of the season.

    Come to think of it, I think those two words better than winners and losers. Especially in the circumstance of a team that is 5-0. So, for the sake of clarity, the winners will be referred to as successes and the losers will be referred to as opportunities.

    Good, glad we got that out of the way.

    So, now, let's look at the Successes and Opportunities from Gamecocks' First Month.

Success: Connor Shaw

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    The junior quarterback was plagued with a painful shoulder injury he suffered during Week 1 against Vanderbilt but battled his way back to post a near perfect 20-of-21 passing against Missouri.

    And then he followed that up with another near perfect 15-of-18 against Kentucky this past week.

    But what Connor Shaw has ultimately proven in his first full season thus far as the Gamecocks' starter is that he is not only a capable passer and reliable runner when needed, but also he is a leader who can rally the troops around him through grit, tenacity and an ability to overcome adversity. The Vanderbilt game alone proved his fortitude to lead his teammates to victory despite injury.

    With the heart of South Carolina's SEC schedule starting this week, Shaw is who the Gamecocks need at the helm.

    That being said, however...

Opportunity: Connor Shaw

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    See, how ridiculous would it be to put Connor Shaw's name next to loser? Asinine, in fact.

    But what cannot be ignored is the gallery of critics still doubting Shaw's ability as a downfield passer.

    Even with the Gamecocks' success, many of the South Carolina faithful have been growing in the camp of backup Dylan Thompson, who has demonstrated a fearlessness and definite ability to throw the deep ball to the Gamecock receivers.

    Clearly, it is the one area that Thompson has over Shaw in terms of skill; that's not to say that Shaw can't get the ball deep, though, when he has to. Thompson just looks less timid doing it.

    Needless to say, as Shaw continues to win, those critics who think a change is necessary in order to get the big passing yard stats will be kept at bay. But mark my words, a loss will tilt more favor to Thompson, especially if the passing game struggles in that loss.

    Speaking of the sophomore backup, though...

Success: Dylan Thompson

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    How could you ask for a better debut than Dylan Thompson's performance against ECU in the Gamecocks second game of the season?

    Filling in for the injured Connor Shaw, Thompson threw to the tune of 21-of-37 for 510 yards and five touchdown passes.

    He followed that with a conservative 5-of-10 for 177 yards against UAB after subbing in at halftime when Shaw re-aggravated his throwing shoulder that kept him out of the ECU game. Of note was the 94-yard strike he threw to Damiere Byrd, which became the fourth longest touchdown pass in school history.

    With his season stats nearly identical to Shaw's because of the injury that caused them to split time, Thompson provides a look at the future for South Carolina at quarterback after Shaw graduates. But to some and even many, Thompson's success has earned him the chance to be Steve Spurrier's guy now.

    Time will tell if Spurrier will get antsy enough to pull that trigger, as he has been known to do in the past when the passing game struggles. But in fielding questions about if he'd be willing to make the change since Thompson has possessed the better deep-ball threat, Spurrier remains locked with Shaw.

Success: Steve Spurrier

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    The Ol Ball Coach has the Gamecocks off to their best start in 11 seasons at 5-0 and even notched his 200th victory as a collegiate coach.

    Although South Carolina's victories against ECU, UAB and Missouri were impressive in terms of margin, it was Spurrier's coaching during the Gamecocks' two road games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky that showed Spurrier's ability to motivate and inspire when the team was either struggling or behind.

    It's that kind of savvy that can propel the Gamecocks to the next level they have been searching for the last few years.

    And without a doubt, Spurrier still does the best damn halftime interview in the business.

Opportunity: South Carolina's Ability to Start Slow

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    The final scores don't necessarily tell the story entire story about the Gamecocks have played their games this season, and one unnerving fact that has stuck out over the past two weeks is South Carolina's ability to start slow in the first quarter and first half.

    Against Missouri, it was merely the first quarter. The Gamecocks were blanked on the scoreboard against the Tigers before they went off in the second quarter with 21 points en route to 31 for the game.

    This past week against Kentucky, the Gamecocks posted only seven points in the first half and managed to be down by 10 at halftime, which set off all kinds of upset alerts. Of course, they then managed to roll off 28 in the second half and leave Kentucky scoreless for the rest of the game.

    In both cases, South Carolina woke up in a big way after being slow out of the blocks, but it is not the way the Gamecocks want to continue especially when they're lining up with Georgia, LSU and Florida.

    Bottom line, they need to get after it early and not just for two or three quarters.

Opportunity: Marcus Lattimore

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    Another one I hate to put on a list of losers.

    Marcus Lattimore's return from a devastating ACL injury has been nothing short of amazing, and during September he became the Gamecocks' all-time leader in rushing touchdowns.

    But there is definitely an opportunity South Carolina is presented with when it comes to Lattimore: It seems to forget about him.

    With the exception of South Carolina's games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Lattimore has not been the focus of the Gamecocks offense despite being the team's most valuable player. It's not a question of Lattimore struggling, as he is on par with his previous seasons with a 4.8 average per carry.

    But he does seem to get frequently lost in the Gamecocks' offensive scheme when it seemed coming into the year he was going once again be the workhorse of the team and help set up the passing game for Connor Shaw.

    Take the first half against Kentucky for example. Lattimore only had fives carries for 12 yards before exploding for 108 in the second half once they started giving him the ball. Perhaps it has worked out, though, for the best the way he has been used and allowing him to become fully acclimated once again after surgery. Maybe South Carolina is also saving the majority of his carries for the big SEC foes that start to appear in October.

    Nevertheless, the Gamecocks can ill-afford to let Lattimore become the focus of the offense once the passing game starts to struggle. If anything, it's Lattimore's success that can open things up for Shaw.

Success: South Carolina's Defense

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    It wouldn't be fair to just put Jadeveon Clowney in this slide by himself, even though he has posted 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss this season. Fact is, he'll be in line for some mighty fine hardware come season's end.

    But it's really the entire Gamecock defense that deserves credit for the first month of the season. Ranked seventh in the country against the run and 13th in total defense, South Carolina has put all offenses on alert the rest of the year.

    First-year defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has dialed up the "Rabbit Defense" to perfection which includes Clowney, Devin Taylor, Chaz Sutton and Adrick Fordham, all defensive ends subbed in to create a frenzy of a pass rush.

    But it's not just the big guys getting it done. The South Carolina secondary has accounted for seven interceptions themselves, placing their corps 15th nationally and giving quarterbacks more than their share to think about when they throw downfield.

    It's a cliche in all of football, but especially in the SEC, it's a great defense that gets you to the championship and right now it's South Carolina's strongest attribute.

Opportunity: Kenny Miles

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    If Marcus Lattimore gets lost in the shuffle, Kenny Miles doesn't seem to be in the deck sometimes for South Carolina, and that's very much how it seemed for the first month of the season.

    In 2012, Miles has posted only 17 carries for 61 yards and three receptions for 44 yards. A far cry for the once featured back for South Carolina, who in 2009 posted 117 carries for 626 yards. Obviously once 2010 came around and Lattimore showed his brilliance, Miles' role was redefined in the South Carolina offense.

    And with Lattimore's injury midway through last season, Miles picked up his carries and kept the Gamecocks capable on the running game. Now, in 2012, he seems to be a utility back brought in only in certain game-time situations. He did have a critical touchdown against Kentucky when the Gamecocks were digging themselves out of a hole in the second half.

    It's hard with the talent that South Carolina has on offense to find more spots for Miles, but it is great opportunity for the Gamecocks to find more places to use their seasoned fourth-year back. Especially in bigger games, it becomes necessary to fall back on the more mature and experienced players to get through critical situations.


Success: Ace Sanders

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    Insert whatever cliched pun you want to use.

    Gamecocks have found their Ace.

    South Carolina's Ace in the hole.

    Sanders Delivers Ace of Spades to Secondaries.

    (I actually like the third one. A nice combination of Motörhead and Apocalypse Now.)

    Anyhow, with the departure of Alshon Jeffrey to the NFL, the Gamecocks were left with a gaping hole at wide receiver. Especially with a big-play wide receiver that could make any throw his way catchable despite the quarterback's accuracy.

    Ace Sanders might only be 5'8," but he has definitely shown an ability to be South Carolina's go-to wide receiver for Connor Shaw. So far in 2012, Sanders has posted 12 catches for 110 yards and three touchdowns.

    But Sanders has also shown a prolific side in the punt return game with 15 returns for 193 yards thus far this season. His 45-yard return against Missouri was the standout highlight of the bunch and was a SportsCenter darling for the weekend two weeks ago.

    South Carolina's foes are not lacking in big-play receivers or returners, and for the Gamecocks to have one more added weapon to go along with Shaw's precision at quarterback and Lattimore's reliability at running back, October could very much be a repeat of September's success for the Gamecocks.