Spring practice is wrapping up across the country and we are a little over four months away from kick-off. To make the time go a little faster, I will countdown my top 50 teams one team at a time. We start, of course, at No. 50...
No. 50 SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Change can be scary. Change can be exciting. For Steve Spurrier, change was necessary. And so the "Ole Ball Coach" did just that this off-season.
Five new assistants have joined Spurrier's staff since last season, in addition to a new strength and conditioning coach.
With the loss of many key veterans, these new coaches are going to have plenty of new faces to work into the line-up for the Gamecocks.
The best of those new faces through spring practice seems to be Stephon Gilmore. The exciting frosh has already earned high praise from Spurrier and is a strong contender to start at corner for the Gamecocks.
Gilmore even saw some time at quarterback during spring practice. During his senior season at Rock Hill South Pointe (S.C.), Gilmore rushed for 1,331 yards and 23 touchdowns and passed for 1,771 yards an 14 touchdowns.
While Gilmore most likely will be seeing most of his playing time come on the defensive side of the ball, he might be a "wrinkle" in Spurrier's offense and could add a much needed spark for a unit that was abysmal last season.
The Gamecocks featured the 112th-ranked running game last season. Leading rusher Mike Davis is gone, as is his former position coach.
Now it is up to new running game coordinator Eric Wolford and returning backs Eric Baker and Brian Maddox to improve on last season's pitiful showing.
They will be helped out be talented freshman Jarvis Giles, who enrolled early and participated in spring camp, and redshirt freshman Kenny Miles.
Wolford will also take over the offensive line coaching duties where he must replace two starters and try and develop some depth for the brutal SEC schedule.
No South Carolina player will be under more pressure to perform than quarterback Stephen Garcia, who only started twice last season as a redshirt freshman but was a regular in the quarterback rotation.
Now that Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher have transferred, Garcia is at the top of that rotation ahead of two redshirt freshmen.
The strength of this team last season was the defense and that should be the case again this season.
The Gamecocks return three defensive linemen with more than 20 career starts—tackles Ladi Ajiboye and Nathan Pepper and end Cliff Matthews.
They did a good job of clearing the way for Eric Norwood, who toyed with the idea of going pro but returned to school after amassing 14.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks in 2008.
"There definitely should be a lot of optimism for next year. I was optimistic about the program when I was making my decision about coming back to school," said Norwood.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Dion LeCorn: The junior will move back to wide receiver after spending part of last season at safety. The Gamecocks must replace Kenny McKinley, who broke most of the school's career receiving records, and tight end Jared Cook.
Rodney Paulk: A two-year starter, Paulk returns after missing all but four games of 2008 with a knee injury. He could reclaim his spot at middle linebacker, but he will be pressured by four-star junior college transfers Tony Straughter and Josh Dickerson.
Steve Spurrier, Jr.: Junior is the only returning assistant coach on the offensive side of the ball. Not even ole Dad will be able to save him if the offense sputters again this season.
FOUR BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Is Stephen Garcia ready to step up at quarterback?
He had two starts as a redshirt freshman in 2008 but was miserable in the loss to the Hawkeyes, passing for just 79 yards and throwing three interceptions in 19 attempts.
2. Who will start at running back?
The candidates include two returnees (Baker and Maddox) who combined for only 319 yards rushing in 2008 plus two redshirt freshmen.
3. Who can replace the numbers lost with the departure of Kenny McKinley, one of the most productive receivers in Carolina history?
Senior Moe Brown is the leading returning receiver with 52 career catches. Sophomore Jason Barnes had 27 catches last season and could be the key.
4. How quickly can the Gamecocks rebuild a secondary that loses three cornerbacks (Captain Munnerlyn, Carlos Thomas, and Stoney Woodson) who had a combined 74 starts in their careers?
Akeem Auguste, who spent much of 2008 at safety as a true freshman, will move back to corner to help bolster the position.
Up Next: Another SEC East team checks in at No. 49. Are they on the verge of a breakthrough season?