South Carolina Football: 2014 Projections for the Deepest WR Corps in the SEC
In Steve Spurrier's nine seasons as head coach at South Carolina, the Gamecocks have produced NFL caliber wide receivers, including Sidney Rice, Kenny McKinley, Alshon Jeffery and Ace Sanders.
Don't be surprised if Bruce Ellington, who gave up his senior season to turn pro, adds his name to the list.
However, the Gamecocks' current crop of wide receivers have the potential to be one of the deepest and most talented groups in the SEC this season.
While none of South Carolina's returning receivers have put up eye-catching numbers, the potential is there.
Here are eight who have a chance to emerge as either stars in the SEC, or at the very least, important contributors for the Gamecocks.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained first hand.
1. Shaq Roland
Shaq Roland isn't even South Carolina's top returning receiver in terms of receptions.
Damiere Byrd had more. So did tailback Mike Davis and wide receiver Nick Jones.
Nevertheless, it's Roland who the Gamecocks coaches are excited about.
A 4-star recruit according to 247Sports, it has taken Roland awhile to develop, but after a slow start, he made a strong finish last season that leads the coaching staff to believe he will be a dominant receiver in 2014.
Roland has developed his route-running skills, and even though he's not the fastest player on the team, he is arguably the Gamecocks' best deep threat because of his ability to adjust to the ball in the air and his ability to go up over defenders to get the ball.
“He recognizes his opportunity and he realizes how important it is for him to make the most of his spring and summer and come in next year as a guy who can have a big year," said South Carolina wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. "He knows that. He knows the expectations.“
Projection: Roland is an emerging star in the SEC capable of putting up huge numbers. He should lead the team in receptions and touchdowns.
2. Pharoh Cooper
Pharoh Cooper came to South Carolina last season as a cornerback, and even though that was a need area for the Gamecocks, his skills on offense were undeniable.
Before his freshman season was over, Cooper had established himself at wide receiver, a key man in the return game, and the Gamecocks' best option at quarterback in the Wildcat formation.
The versatile Cooper will again handle those roles, but his role at wide receiver expands dramatically since he's the odd-on favorite to take Bruce Ellington's starting spot.
“He’s been pretty good when he has been on the field and for him to come from wanting to be a lock-down corner when he got here to playing wide receiver, returning kicks and punts and playing quarterback at a high level, he has certainly proved that he can play," said wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. "We’re going to try and get the ball in his hands whenever we can.He’s a smart, mature kid and we’ll throw a little bit more at him this year.”
Projection: Cooper is almost certain to earn to earn a starting spot at wide receiver and looms as potentially the Gamecocks' top threat on offense.
3. Damiere Byrd
When the conversation turns to the fastest player on South Carolina's football team, it's about who is No. 2.
No. 1 is Damiere Byrd, and this Byrd can fly.
He's South Carolina's leading returning wide receiver after catching 33 passes for 575 yards and five touchdowns.
Byrd will be limited in the spring while he continues rehabilitation from a knee injury, but he is an established talent for the Gamecocks.
“He’s recovering well," said South Carolina wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. "Still not doing much. Trying to gain a little weight right now. Trying to get him up over that 160 mark, closer to 170. But he’s still the fastest player on the team. He’s got a chance for a big year too, so hopefully when he comes back, he’ll have a chance to do some team and individual and get involved a little bit. He’s a fast, explosive young man who should play a big role in our offense.”
Projection: Provided he recovers fully from his knee injury, Byrd's blistering speed should ensure he will have a spot in the Gamecocks' rotation at wide receiver.
4. Nick Jones
Nick Jones is a senior wide receiver who has proven to be a dependable pass-catcher with an uncanny knack for getting open.
A high school teammate of former Gamecocks tailback Marcus Lattimore, Jones has paid his dues at South Carolina, and knows the offense perhaps better than any of South Carolina's wide receivers.
A senior, Jones is a fierce competitor who knows it's now or never if he wants to make a big impact for the Gamecocks.
"Nick Jones understands he’s got an opportunity to step up and make a name for himself," said wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. "He'll be hard to keep off the field."
Projection: Jones is so steady and dependable, it's difficult to imagine he won't be a part of the mix at wide receiver for the Gamecocks next season.
5. Shamier Jeffery
Shamier Jeffery is still dealing with that whole "younger brother" thing.
Jeffery is the younger brother of Alshon Jeffery, one of the greatest wide receivers in Gamecocks history and a current NFL standout with the Chicago Bears.
Shamier, a junior, has shown flashes of brilliance but needs to step up and prove he can be a major factor for the Gamecocks.
He begins spring practice penciled in as a backup to Shaq Roland at wide receiver.
“He’s another guy who needs to have a good spring and prove he’s ready to go play," said South Carolina wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. "He’s right behind Shaq. He’s a talented guy who just needs to get a little confidence and an opportunity to go play. Hopefully, he’s a guy who can have a good spring and contribute a little more next year.”
Projection: The talent is there. It would seem it's now or never for Jeffery to emerge and establish himself as one of the Gamecocks' top receivers.
6. K.J. Brent
Junior K.J. Brent only caught two passes last season, but the coaching staff thinks highly enough of him to have him listed as the top backup to Pharoh Cooper entering the spring.
At 6'4',' Brent gives the Gamecocks a big-body target, capable of muscling up on smaller defensive backs.
He'll get a chance in the spring to prove he's ready to take on a bigger role in the Gamecocks offense.
"K.J. Brent will compete pretty hard with (Cooper) for that position," said South Carolina wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. "K.J. wants to play too. This will be a big spring for him.”
Projection: On a team that's short on tall receivers, Brent's size gives him a chance. With so much competition at wide receiver, he'll need a great spring to get his foot in the door for a regular spot in the rotation.
7. Kane Whitehurst
The backup spot on the spring depth chart at wide receiver behind starter Shaq Roland lists Shamier Jeffery or Kane Whitehurst.
Whitehurst, a junior, only caught four passes last season but he definitely made them count. Two of them went for touchdowns.
He averaged 16.5 yards on his four receptions.
Sure-handed, and a good route-runner, Whitehurst will have an opportunity in the spring to play his way into the rotation.
Projection: While highly unlikely to play his way into the starting lineup, Whitehurst definitely has a shot to move up the depth chart.
8. Kwinton Smith
Kwinton Smith was good enough to play in 11 games as a freshman, and finished with five receptions for 42 yards.
At 6'4'', he is the Gamecocks' tallest receiver, along with K.J. Brent.
Like all of South Carolina's backup wide receivers, Smith has a big chance to improve his standing in the spring.
Presently, he's listed third team behind Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones.
Projection: Another wait and see possibility at wide receiver for the Gamecocks. Spring practice should reveal whether he is ready for a bigger role.
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes obtained first hand.