Is this the year for the South Carolina Gamecocks, or will they take a step back? Are they poised for a run at the national championship, or have they had their year (or years) after back-to-back 11-win seasons?
The wide receiving corps has a lot to do with the answers to those questions.
Head coach Steve Spurrier was dealt bad news this offseason when wide receiver Ace Sanders—he of 531 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season—decided to jump to the NFL a year early.
That's OK, though.
Sure, losing that kind of scoring ability is a loss, but it's not something that will prevent the Gamecocks from playing at an elite level in 2013.
Bruce Ellington wasn't their most prolific scorer last season, but the 5'9", 196-pound junior led the team with 600 receiving yards and finished second with 40 catches and seven TD receptions. He's dangerous in space, runs crisp routes and plays bigger than his size suggests, which makes him a threat.
Is he a game-breaker? He can be at times, and that's all South Carolina needs to ask of him if all goes according to plan in the running game.
Ellington's role isn't going to be much different than last year, although it will expand.
Sanders lined up outside and in the slot last season, creating matchup headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. The likely candidate to fill that role is Damiere Byrd, a 5'9", 166-pound junior who had 366 receiving yards and three touchdowns last season. He could slide into a more prominent role in the offense in 2013.
He's quick off the ball, dangerous in space and could be a star if he can consistently stretch the field next season.
Shaq Roland will have a lot of eyes on him this season. The former Mr. Football in the state of South Carolina came to Columbia with a ton of hype, but he wasn't able to live up to it as a freshman.
The 6'1", 190-pounder caught five passes for 80 yards, but he has the potential to be an SEC superstar if he can earn playing time.
Add in Nick Jones, Kwinton Smith, Shamier Jeffery, K.J. Brent and a couple of incoming freshmen and the head ball coach has options.
But the Gamecocks may not need that many options.
Tight ends Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson were fantastic in the spring game, combining for 162 receiving yards and two touchdowns. For a school that has consistently produced quality tight ends, those two seemed fully capable of stepping in for Justice Cunningham.
Spurrier shared his thoughts on his talented tight ends with CBSSports.com after the spring game:
He (Adams) and Busta (Rory Anderson) are good. I told the ESPN boys we have two of the best tight ends around. Jerell has really come around this spring and Busta really came around, he has gained about 30 pounds since he first arrived here. He got here about 210 and he is about 240 now and looks like a tight end. Both of them are tough and they don’t shy away from the ball.
The size of both players can present matchup nightmares, especially in the red zone.
Whether it's Dylan Thompson or Connor Shaw taking the snaps, the foundation of South Carolina's offense will still be the running game. Having multiple tight ends that can act as safety valves and legitimate weapons will open up the entire playbook.
Don't sleep on South Carolina.
The schedule sets up well and, aside from the loss of Marcus Lattimore, the holes on offense aren't terribly difficult to fill. The program solved its biggest issue this spring with the emergence of Mike Davis at running back, as both quarterbacks have proven to be effective at the helm.
Replacing Sanders is an issue, but it shouldn't move the meter in terms of South Carolina winning or losing the SEC East. The Gamecocks have the pieces in place to withstand the loss on offense.
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