South Carolina football came into the 2011 season with a lot of expectations and, despite some serious injuries and a quarterback change, the Gamecocks were able to finish the season at 10-2 and end up in the Capital One Bowl.
While the Gamecocks missed out on the SEC East division title for the second straight year, they were able to finish 6-2 in the SEC for the first time ever. They also beat all five SEC East teams for the first time in their history.
There are a lot of positives to be seen around the Gamecocks' program right now, and the future does look bright for Steve Spurrier.
Here's a look at five players who surprised us in 2011, along with a look at five players who need to step up next season.
I don't think anyone expected Brandon Wilds to be one of the Gamecocks' main rushing threats the second half of the season.
A season-ending injury to Marcus Lattimore with injuries to backups Kenny Miles and Eric Baker called the true freshman into action for the Gamecocks, and he did not disappoint.
After starting the season fifth on the depth chart, Wilds finished the regular season with 486 yards and three rushing touchdowns on 107 carries. Wilds stepped in for his first career start against Tennessee and ran for 137 yards. He would also run for more than 100 yards against Florida and The Citadel, and Wilds also had 15 catches on the year for 136 yards.
Wilds' emergence kept the Gamecocks alive the second half of the season, and his running style almost reminded fans of Lattimore, the guy he was charged to replace.
South Carolina will have an abundance of talented backs next season when Lattimore returns from injury, along with injured freshman Shon Carson, to team with Wilds.
The future looks bright, and Wilds is a big part of the reason why.
Reginald Bowens has been an unknown at South Carolina his whole career.
The redshirt junior has missed the majority of his time at South Carolina with injuries, but was able to participate pain-free and injury-free this year, and really stepped up at the linebacker position.
Bowens ended up starting seven games this year for South Carolina and had 41 total tackles on the year. He had a season-high 11 total tackles against Auburn this year and also had six total tackles against East Carolina in the season-opener. Bowens added an interception against Mississippi State that he returned for 19 yards.
Bowens is a big, physical linebacker who has the speed and strength to be a force on this Gamecocks defense. He's been limited in the past with multiple injuries, but the 2011 season ended up being a nice surprise for a guy we just didn't know much about on the field.
Hopefully 2012 will be an even better year for Reginald Bowens.
Count me surprised at how effective Rory Anderson was for the Gamecocks when he caught the football.
Anderson caught three touchdowns this season, but only had seven catches. I guess the phrase, "All he does is catch touchdowns," pretty much applies to him.
This true freshman tight end came in to USC with the playmaking ability, but with a slender build most expected him to need time to grow to compete at the next level.
I guess you don't need to sit on the bench if you can make big plays like Anderson did for the Gamecocks.
Anderson caught a touchdown against Tennessee, The Citadel and Clemson. Two of his seven receptions this year went for 46 yards and 55 yards.
He's got plenty of speed and can certainly be a threat for the Gamecocks in the future. If he can continue to grow but keep that big-play ability in his back pocket, then South Carolina has a weapon on offense for the next few years.
Connor Shaw wasn't expected to be the man leading South Carolina down the stretch, but a turn of events put the young quarterback in the mix early in the 2011 season.
Shaw started the first game of 2011 for South Carolina, but struggled out of the gate. The young sophomore quarterback would get his chance again when he was named the starter against Kentucky in October. Shaw would end up with a 311-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Wildcats, and Steve Spurrier had himself a new quarterback.
The offense would go through some growing pains under the guidance of Shaw, but he kept on fighting and kept the Gamecocks winning. USC would go 7-1 in his eight starts on the year, while Shaw would go 112-of-171 for 1,218 yards passing with 12 touchdowns thrown to only six interceptions. Shaw also rushed for 483 yards with seven touchdowns.
His ability to lead and keep plays alive with his feet were crucial to the Gamecocks' success in several games this season, and the experience will only allow him to grow as a football player.
Shaw should be a big part of USC's success in 2012.
The Gamecocks' starting point guard turned out to be quite a football player too.
No one was quite sure how much Bruce Ellington would be involved or how quickly he would return to football form, but it didn't take him long to make an impact for the Gamecocks.
Ellington turned out be a versatile player for the Gamecocks as he played wide receiver, wildcat quarterback and kick returner for USC. He was second in all-purpose yards for USC in the regular season, with 707 all-purpose yards and an average of 58.9 yards per game.
Ellington had two touchdowns this year, one being a 61-yard rushing touchdown against Kentucky and the other being a 49-yard touchdown reception against Clemson. He was effective running the ball out of the wildcat, and he was third in receiving yards for South Carolina with 211 yards.
There's a chance that Ellington could decide to give up football to focus on basketball next year, but if he decides to return to the gridiron then he could be a big-time playmaker for South Carolina next season.
If he doesn't come back, I know Steve Spurrier enjoyed having the chance to coach this young man on the field in 2011. He turned out to be a heck of a football player.
The Gamecocks were in need of a veteran presence to step up in the absence of the departed Tori Gurley.
All eyes turned to the redshirt junior D.L. Moore.
Moore was the next in line to be the second option for the Gamecocks after Alshon Jeffery. Another tall wide receiver like Moore lined up on the outside should have created mismatches for the Gamecocks' opponents.
Unfortunately Moore failed to produce for the Gamecocks this season.
Moore saw action in 11 games this year and finished with eight catches for 52 yards and only one touchdown. He was hampered by injuries early in the year and never seemed to recover from there. Moore lost out on playing time to younger receivers and was just never a factor.
South Carolina will likely lose star receiver Alshon Jeffery in 2012 to the NFL draft, so the Gamecocks' passing game will need a big target like D.L. Moore to step up and help give Connor Shaw a big presence through the air next season.
Damario Jeffery came to South Carolina with a lot of fanfare. He was a highly rated recruit out of high school and had the size to be a force on defense in the SEC.
However, he hasn't quite lived up to his potential, and the 2011 season was another tough year on the junior from Columbia, S.C.
Jeffery played in 10 games this season and finished the year with only 13 total tackles. He won a backup linebacker position behind Rodney Paulk in the spring, but did make a move to the SPUR position out of necessity for the Gamecocks when injuries occurred. His struggles in pass coverage were evident during his only start of the year for the Arkansas game.
Jeffery seems better suited to play linebacker, and he could be counted on heavily in 2012 now that Rodney Paulk has exhausted his eligibility. The Gamecocks will need this homegrown product to make tremendous strides in the offseason to be able to step up for USC next season.
South Carolina's Damiere Byrd built up a lot of hype during the fall practices for the Gamecocks.
The speed and catching ability were there from the beginning, and South Carolina appeared to have a playmaker on their hands.
Unfortunately, Byrd was suspended by the NCAA for the first four games of the season, and he never became a factor once he was reinstated to play.
Byrd had a few early drops in his first few games that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the year for him. The struggles he had catching the football limited him in future games, and he essentially became a running threat on reverses for the rest of the season.
Byrd finished the year with one catch for 16 yards and had nine carries for 70 yards on the season.
Big things were expected of Byrd in 2011, but USC didn't get to see much on the football field. If Bruce Ellington doesn't return to football, Byrd may be asked to pick up his portion of the snaps for the Gamecocks.
He's a dynamic speed threat for South Carolina who will need to step up in 2012 to give South Carolina another option at wide receiver.
The South Carolina offensive line hasn't been perfect during Steve Spurrier's tenure.
However, he's recruited some nice young talent, and one of those offensive linemen had to play a big role in South Carolina in 2011, but struggled greatly.
Cody Gibson won a backup tackle position for South Carolina this year as a redshirt freshman and was called into action when fifth-year senior Kyle Nunn suffered a season-ending back injury. Gibson moved over to right tackle, and at times it was tough to watch.
Gibson struggled to hold his own on the offensive line this year and was routinely beat on plenty of pass-rush. The offensive line struggles this season were a cause for the passing game's decline in 2011.
Rokevious Watkins has exhausted his eligibility, and Nunn will most likely miss out on a sixth year of eligibility. This means the Gamecocks will need these young offensive linemen to continue improving and playing a big role in 2012.
Gibson could be an important piece of the puzzle for the Gamecocks' offensive line in 2012.
Victor Hampton has had his issues off the field.
Hampton was close to not being a part of this South Carolina football team after a brief dismissal over the summer. He was allowed back on the team a few days later and ultimately served a three-game suspension.
It turns out the Gamecocks could have used this talent in those first three games. USC was undermanned in the secondary in those first few weeks of the season, and the secondary gave up some big plays to East Carolina and Georgia.
Hampton finished 2011 with just 12 total tackles and one interception. He showcased some of the natural ability on the field this season, but Hampton needs to be a more consistent player off the field for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina loses seniors C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett this offseason, and could also lose junior Stephon Gilmore to the NFL. There will be holes to fill on the depth chart at cornerback, and Hampton needs to step up next year to become a bigger force on defense.
The Gamecocks have a lot to be proud of from the 2011 season.
A lot of strides were made this season by this football team to answer the question about whether or not this team is for real. Winning 10 games with a chance at 11 wins with a bowl game victory would end up being the greatest season in South Carolina history.
There are plenty of young players on this team who should expect to take a step up next season for South Carolina. A few of the players were mentioned in this slide already, but also keep an eye on players like defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, free safety Sheldon Royster, offensive linemen Joe Harris and Mike Matulis, and wide receiver K.J. Brent.
South Carolina is also recruiting well for 2012, so there could be some guys not even on campus yet who make an impact. (Wide receivers Shaq Roland, Jody Fuller and Kwinton Smith come to mind.) So do the names Brock Stadnik on the offensive line, Jerrell Adams from prep school and Kaiwan Lewis at linebacker.
These are different times in Columbia. There are new expectations, and the 2011 season has Gamecock fans thinking big.
Steve Spurrier has built this program for the future, and the 2012 looks like another promising year. It's a great time to be a Gamecock!