When senior All-SEC receiver Kenny McKinley went down with hamstring injury in the first half of the Vanderbilt game in week two, it looked as though the Gamecock offense would not only lose a huge level of their productivity but also a vocal team leader in the huddle.
And that assessment was correct: The Gamecock aerial attack was severely stunted in the three games McKinley missed, and no one stepped up as the vocal leader of the group.
For the last two seasons, McKinley has been the favorite target for any Gamecock quarterback, so to lose a guy who had never missed a game in his career certainly put South Carolina in a bind.
Since South Carolina’s two losses are both by one touchdown, you have to wonder if at least one—and perhaps both—would turn out differently if McKinley had been dressed out. After all, any team will struggle when its best player cannot get on the field—and McKinley is without question the Gamecocks’ most reliable and lethal offensive player.
But that argument is for another day.
McKinley’s injury could very well end up being a blessing in disguise—not only for the rest of the season, but more importantly, for seasons to come.
Two years ago, South Carolina coaches hauled in a receiving class that Spurrier and Spurrier, Jr. said rivaled any receiving class at Florida.
While perhaps an overstatement at the time, those young players—Dion LeCorn, Chris Culliver, Joe Hills, Jason Barnes, and Matt Clements—are now trying to prove the coaches right—and their play is doing the speaking.
In McKinley’s first full game of missed action, junior Moe Brown stepped up against a very good Georgia secondary, hauling in seven passes for 130 yards and the lone touchdown of the day.
While not part of the celebrated receiving class, Brown has been little-used thus far in his career. The Georgia game was essentially his coming out party. Since then, Brown has been steady, catching three balls in each game.
After the Georgia game, the Gamecocks faced off against Wofford and UAB, and Spurrier basically orchestrated a glorified scrimmage, throwing in as many different receivers as possible. Though the results were not pretty, those games paid dividends, as nearly every receiver on the team saw action and made a catch.
Dion LeCorn, a true sophomore, has been on the field more than any of the young receivers but has yet to show the playmaking skills he did as a freshman. Still, though, LeCorn’s consistent play gives the Gamecocks another experienced receiver on the field.
It seems to be a matter of time before LeCorn has a breakthrough game this season.
Joe Hills, a sophomore, has come on as well, collecting five catches in the last three games, including the final touchdown in last week’s Ole Miss game.
The redshirt freshman making the most noise, however, is Jason Barnes, who caught seven balls for 76 yards and two highlight reel touchdowns against Ole Miss. Barnes has drawn comparisons to former Gamecock Sidney Rice—high praise indeed.
If these young burners can continue to contribute, and a healthy McKinely and the always dangerous tight end Jared Cook keep posting their numbers, the passing attack could open up even more for South Carolina—if the offensive line can give Smelley/Garcia the time needed, that is.
Last but not least, the player most projected as the best of the young receivers, Chris Culliver, has been starting all year and playing extremely well—except he’s doing it on defense, helping a secondary that is first in pass defense.
Culliver is also starting to carve a niche as a kickoff return man, averaging a solid 23.2 per return, with a long of 50.
The Gamecocks will get a true test this weekend against a very fast and hard hitting Kentucky defense. If the O-line holds up, watch out for this receiving corps.
Who knows, the Cock ‘N Fire offense Spurrier was supposed to bring to Columbia might just arrive after all—just a few years late.
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