March 18, 2008
The South Carolina Gamecocks embark on Year Four of the Steve Spurrier Era with cautious optimism. On paper, the Gamecocks have maybe their most talented and deepest squad since Coach Spurrier’s arrival in Columbia. A 6-1 start to the 2007 campaign certainly raised the hopes and expectations of the Gamecock Nation. However, a season-ending five-game losing streak tempered the enthusiasm just a bit. With another difficult schedule that features the likes of Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson, the Gamecock faithful wonder if this will be the year South Carolina challenges for the SEC Eastern Division title and a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
With 54 lettermen and 16-of-22 starters returning, including 10 on defense, the Gamecocks have an experienced nucleus and the depth in place to withstand the rigors of that challenging schedule. Some of they questions that need to be answered are:
* Can a quarterback emerge and solidify himself as the starting signal-caller? Sophomore Chris Smelley, junior Tommy Beecher and redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia all will get an opportunity to distinguish himself as the leader on the offense. Smelley took the most snaps last season, Beecher has been in the program the longest and Garcia may be the most talented of the three. If none of the three is head-and-shoulders above the others, the competition could continue through the summer and into the fall two-a-days.
* How will the defense adapt to the style of new coordinator Ellis Johnson? The Gamecocks return 10 starters on defense, not including the likes of veteran defensive tackle Nathan Pepper and All-SEC linebacker Jasper Brinkley, both of whom missed much of the 2007 season due to injury. Experience is not a problem on the defensive side of the ball, but the Gamecocks need to do a better job of stopping the run if they hope to compete for an SEC title in 2008.
* How quickly will the offensive line come together? Coach John Hunt needs to replace just one starter (center William Brown) along the offensive line, and has more experienced players to work with, but needs the group to take a collective step forward into becoming a unit that is productive week-in and week-out.
* Can new coach Ray Rychleski make the special teams special? Senior Ryan Succop has proven to be one of the best dual punters/placekickers in the nation, but the Gamecocks need to make some improvements in protection, kick coverage and in the return game. Rychleski brings an impressive resume to the table following a stint at Maryland.
Those and other questions will begin to be answered when the Gamecocks begin their spring practice schedule on Wednesday, March 19.
The South Carolina offense features six returning players, including four on the offensive line and both wide receivers, but must find a replacement for quarterback Blake Mitchell who, despite having an up-and-down career, took the bulk of the snaps over the past three seasons. The Gamecocks must also replace tailback Cory Boyd, who was not only a productive player on the field, but showed strong leadership in the locker room.
QUARTERBACK: The biggest question for the Gamecocks entering the spring drills is finding a suitable replacement for three-year starter Blake Mitchell. Although Mitchell had somewhat of a checkered career in the Garnet & Black, he still left as one of the top five passers in Gamecock history in pass attempts, pass completions, completion percentage, passing touchdowns and passing yards. The spring sets up with a three-man race for the starting role between junior Tommy Beecher, sophomore Chris Smelley and redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia. Beecher, now in his fourth season, has been in the program the longest. He completed 14-of-23 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown in limited duty in 2007. Smelley, now in his third season, was highly-regarded when he came on campus in the fall of 2006 and quickly worked his way up the depth chart. He started six games in the 2007 season, completing 92-of-162 passes for 1,176 yards and nine touchdowns, including a 279-yard effort against Mississippi State and a three-touchdown performance at North Carolina, but could not hold the starting slot down the stretch. He owns a 4-2 record as a starter. Everyone will have their eyes on Garcia this spring. The strong-arm gunslinger from Tampa, Fla. has shown more of an ability to escape a pass rush and keep a play alive, something that Coach Spurrier would like to see more out of his quarterback. Garcia, who may be the most gifted athletically of the quarterbacks, needs to show that he has a complete understanding of the offense to move past Beecher and Smelley for the starting role. Michael McQueeney, who played as a freshman at Western Carolina before deciding to try his hand at Division I football, and Zac Brindise, whose brother, Noah, played for Coach Spurrier at Florida, are two walk-on QBs in spring camp.
TAILBACK: The Gamecocks lost their leader in Cory Boyd, who graduated in December after leading the team with 903 rushing yards and nine touchdowns a season ago. Senior Mike Davis figures to get the first shot at taking the bulk of the carries this fall. Davis led the team in rushing in 2005 and has been second on the squad in each of the past two seasons while sharing the load with Boyd. He has gained 1,658 rushing yards in his career and owns three 100-yard rushing games. Sophomore Brian Maddox is expected to make a strong push for more playing time this fall. Maddox was used primarily on special teams as a true freshman last season. Senior Bobby Wallace and junior Taylor Rank both have shown flashes of ability when given the opportunity. Wallace, who was hampered by injuries throughout the 2007 campaign, had his best game against Middle Tennessee in 2006 when he carried just three times but gained 98 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown burst, the fourth-longest run in school history and the longest since 1991. Rank was forced into the starting role against Florida Atlantic in 2006 and responded with a 100-yard rushing day in his only career start. Freshman Eric Baker, who played last fall at Fork Union Military, will also get a long look this spring.
FULLBACK: The Gamecocks primarily use their fullbacks to block, rather than carry the pigskin, but must find a replacement for Lanard Stafford, a former walk-on lineman who worked his way into a two-year starter. Sophomore Patrick DiMarco was one of the more pleasant surprises as a true freshman last fall. DiMarco worked his way into some significant playing time and caught four passes, including a touchdown in the win over Kentucky. Former walk-on Bryan Kingrey made one start in the 2006 season and is a quality backup. Senior Yvan Banag makes the transition from the defensive side of the ball to fullback this spring. Jim Hutton adds depth.
WIDE RECEIVER: The Gamecocks return one of the SEC’s best receivers in senior Kenny McKinley. McKinley stepped into the number one receiver role last fall following the early departure of Sidney Rice to the NFL, and turned in one of the most productive seasons in Carolina history en route to first team all-league accolades. McKinley caught a school record 77 passes for 968 yards and nine touchdowns and owns 153 career receptions for 2,139 yards and 15 scores. He could leave Carolina as the career record-holder in nearly all receiving categories. Senior Larry Freeman and juniors Freddie Brown and Moe Brown, are the only other scholarship upperclassmen at wide receiver. Freeman was a junior college transfer who struggled at times in making the transition to the Division I level, but should feel more comfortable this time around. Freddie Brown has solid hands and is more of a possession-type receiver, while Moe Brown has the speed to make the deep catch. A bevy of second-year players figure heavily in the plans again this season. The group was rated as the top recruited receiving corps coming out of high school in 2007 and had varying degrees of success in their first collegiate season. Dion Lecorn had the most success, catching 27 passes for 315 yards, including an eight-catch, 109-yard performance against Arkansas. He caught 16 passes over the last three games after not logging a reception in the season’s first four contests. Chris Culliver was the most highly touted of the class and showed promise primarily as a kick returner, but was not a factor in the passing game in 2007. With his athletic ability, he needs to find a home on the field somewhere soon. Jason Barnes, Mark Barnes, Joe Hills and Matt Clements all have a world of potential, but injuries kept them sidelined for much of the 2007 campaign. C.C. Whitlock, one of the most acclaimed recruits for the 2008 season, is a versatile performer who will get a shot a wide receiver this spring. A trio of walk-ons round out the returning wide receiving corps, including Paul Haile, Scott Spurrier and Stephen Flint.
TIGHT END: The Gamecocks may not be loaded with depth at the tight end position, but their first two may be as good as any two in the league. Junior Jared Cook was the team’s third-leading receiver a year ago, catching 30 passes for 421 yards, an average of 14.0 yards per catch, which was the highest on the team of any player with more than two receptions. Sophomore Weslye Saunders had an impressive freshman season, catching 12 passes for 151 yards, earning third team Freshman All-America honors by CollegeFootballNews.com. Sophomore Nick Prochak was impressive during the spring drills of 2007, but suffered a broken leg in an off-season accident and will not participate this spring. Sophomore Clark Gaston, who has been hampered by injuries throughout much of his Carolina career, takes a shot at tight end after working as a fullback. Senior Alex McGrath, who lettered as a special teams performer in 2006, and sophomore Foxy Foxworth add depth.
OFFENSIVE LINE: With the loss of just one starter, center Web Brown, due to graduation, the Gamecock offensive line has the most returning numbers they have had since the Spurrier regime took over three years ago. A pair of returning fifth-year senior starters are the bookend offensive tackles with Jamon Meredith manning the left side and Justin Sorensen holding down the right. Meredith has made 29 career starts, second on the team, while Sorensen has started each of the last 18 games in a row. Gurminder Thind is the third senior offensive lineman on the roster and, like Sorensen, hails from Canada. Thind has played both guard and tackle during his Carolina career. Sophomore Hutch Eckerson, who sat out the 2007 season as a redshirt after starting five games in 2006, could also push for the starting role at either tackle position. Junior Garrett Anderson gets the first shot at replacing Brown at center. Anderson has started eight games over the past two seasons at guard. A pair of sophomores in Seaver Brown and Heath Batchelor enter the spring listed as the starters at left and right guard, respectively. Brown started six games in 2007, while Batchelor earned three starts after making the transition from tackle. Brown could also be used at center. They will be pushed by junior Lemuel Jeanpierre and sophomore Kevin Young. Jeanpierre made five starts at guard last fall after making the move from the defensive line in the spring. Young has a lot of potential, but injuries have kept him from earning any playing time. Sophomores Pierre Andrews and Terrence Campbell, a converted defensive lineman, could also get a look at guard in the spring. Tackles Quintin Richardson and Kyle Nunn, along with center Ryan Broadhead took redshirt seasons last fall to get bigger and stronger in the weight room. Junior walk-on Hardee Sanders adds depth to the unit.
Expect South Carolina to field its best defense in the Steve Spurrier Era in 2008. New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have a bevy of returning starters and letterwinners competing in practice for playing time, which should lead to better gameday performances. The Gamecocks were solid in the secondary a year ago, featuring the nation’s fourth-best pass defense, but struggled stopping the run. The return of defensive tackle Nathan Pepper and linebacker Jasper Brinkley along with the Lindsey twins, Jordin and Dustin, will help shore up the run defense, although they all will not be at full strength until the fall.
DEFENSIVE LINE: With another year of experience under their collective belts and another off-season in Mark Smith’s weight room, the Gamecocks should be solid along the defensive front. The squad should be led by a pair of standout defensive ends in junior Eric Norwood and senior Jordin Lindsey. Norwood set a school record in 2007 with 19.5 tackles for loss and has 13.0 sacks in his first two seasons in the Garnet & Black. Lindsey took a redshirt season in 2007 after making 15 starts over the previous two seasons. The last time he was on the field he was named Carolina’s Outstanding Defensive Player in the 2006 Liberty Bowl win over Houston. Senior Marque Hall and sophomore Ladi Ajiboye enter the spring as the incumbents at the two tackle positions. Hall is a fifth-year player who started eight contests last fall after missing most of the 2006 season with a knee injury. Ajiboye garnered the most post-season acclaim of the Carolina freshmen in 2007, earning second team Freshman All-America honors by the Sporting News. Defensive line coach Brad Lawing likes to keep fresh bodies on the field at all times, so a productive second unit is imperative for the Gamecocks’ success. A pair of sophomore defensive ends, Clifton Geathers and Travian Robertson, both gained experience as true freshmen last fall and figure to make a greater contribution this year after an off-season in the weight room. Both Geathers (6-7, 290) and Robertson (6-4, 270) have excellent size. Three other players who could push for the starting tackle slots are Kenrick Ellis, Jonathan Williams and Nathan Pepper. Ellis, a sophomore, started the 2007 season-finale against Clemson and, at 6-5, 353, could plug up the middle against the run. Williams, who transferred to Carolina after two years in junior college, is back for his final campaign. Pepper was the starter in 15 of the 16 games prior to suffering a season-ending knee-injury against South Carolina State last fall. He may be limited in the spring, but is expected to be at full strength in the fall. A pair of redshirt freshmen, defensive end Byron McKnight and defensive tackle Donte’e Nicholls, will try to work their way into the rotation with a strong spring. Defensive tackle Jamarial Brown and defensive end Darantzy Brunson are a pair of walk-ons who add depth.
LINEBACKER: The Gamecocks sorely missed the run-stopping ability of middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, when he went out with a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game of the 2007 season. Brinkley, who was a first team All-SEC selection in 2006 and an All-America candidate prior to the 2007 season, returns for his final year to man the middle of the Carolina defense. Although he is not expected to see much action this spring, Brinkley should be at full strength when NC State visits Columbia in late August. While the return of Brinkley is huge for the Gamecock defense, the linebacking corps has several other players returning who have played significant minutes. Junior Rodney Paulk and sophomore Cliff Matthews enter the spring listed as the first team outside linebackers. Paulk a local product from Columbia’s Richland Northeast High School, has made 22 starts over the past two seasons, the third highest total on the squad. He has accounted for 100 tackles in his USC career. Matthews was impressive in his first season in the Garnet & Black, earning a spot on both the coaches and the Sporting News Freshman All-SEC squad after making nine starts. Matthews started his career at defensive end, and could eventually end up back at that position. Three-year letterwinner Marvin Sapp stepped in as the starter at middle linebacker last fall when Brinkley went down with the injury and performed admirably, figuring in on 61 tackles. The linebacking unit will also get a boost from the return of senior Dustin Lindsey. Lindsey, a fifth-year senior, figured to get plenty of action last fall, but suffered a knee injury during the 2007 Garnet & Black Spring Game, and was limited to one brief appearance. Junior Gerrod Sinclair has played in 23 games over the past two seasons and enters the spring listed as the second team strongside linebacker behind Matthews. Sophomore Melvin Ingram has good size at 6-2, and 255 pounds to play in the middle, but also has shown good speed. Juniors Vandaral Shackleford and Damien Wright look to gain more playing time this year. Alonzo Winfield is a redshirt freshman who will try to work his way into the mix, as will incoming freshman Shaq Wilson, who graduated from high school in December. John Guerry is a solid walk-on to the squad.
CORNERBACK: The Gamecocks return all of their scholarship players at cornerback, led by first team All-SEC pick Captain Munnerlyn. Despite his stature (5-9, 185), the junior from Mobile, Ala., is considered the best cover corner on the squad. He intercepted three passes a season ago and has five picks in his career. Seniors Carlos Thomas and Stoney Woodson figure to battle it out for the other starting corner spot opposite of Munnerlyn. Both have extensive game experience, with Thomas logging 20 starts and Woodson making 13 during their careers. Woodson has also spent time at safety during his Carolina career. Sophomore Addison Williams was thrown into the fire last season as injuries began to mount. He will benefit from going through his first spring drills. Jamire Williams was redshirted last fall, while Akeem Auguste spent the fall playing at Fork Union before enrolling at Carolina in January. Mike Newton and Cedrick Snead are a pair of walk-ons who round out the cornerback position.
SAFETY: Like all of the other defensive positions, the Carolina safeties return the starters from a year ago. Junior strong safety Emanuel Cook heads the list of returning players. A member of the All-Mayday Team as selected by ESPN’s Mark May and a second team All-SEC performer, Cook overcame an appendectomy just before the start of the season to become the team’s leading tackler. Junior Darian Stewart is atop the depth chart at free safety entering the spring after starting 10 games a season ago. He showed a nose for the football with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Junior Chris Hail is the only other safety on the roster who has seen any playing time. Antonio Allen, who played one season at Fork Union Military and enrolled at Carolina in January, and Jay Spearman, who also joined the squad this spring, could work their way into some early playing time with a strong spring. A trio of walk-ons in Blake Baxley, Quanopheus Earls and Chris Stevens round out the roster. Earls and Stevens are new to the squad this spring.
The Gamecocks will place renewed emphasis on special teams this year with the addition of special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski. Rychleski has had a great amount of success throughout his coaching career, most recently at the University of Maryland, and his arrival should help shore up the weaknesses that cropped up late in the season, especially in punt protection.
PLACEKICKER: The Gamecocks have one of the nation’s top returning placekickers in senior Ryan Succop. Succop, who has been blessed with a strong leg, was an honorable mention All-SEC pick in 2007 after earning second team honors in 2006. A candidate for the Lou Groza Award, which recognizes the nation’s top placekicker, Succop is 16-for-17 in his career from inside 40 yards and owns two field goals of 50-plus yards. The entire placement team returns with sophomore Charles Turner handling the snapping duties and junior Tommy Beecher serving as the holder. Sophomore Spencer Lanning and redshirt freshman Stephen Huegel figure to be next in line for the placekicking chores behind Succop. Redshirt freshman Chris Vaughn is the backup deep snapper.
PUNTER: Ryan Succop handled the punting chores in addition to the placekicking duties a season ago and could do both again this season. Succop’s average was down a bit last fall to 41.6 yards per punt after averaging 43.7 yards in 2006, but he also logged nearly twice as many punts (56) in 2007 as he did in `06 (29). Spencer Lanning and Nate Spurrier are the backup punters. Charles Turner handles the deep snaps on punts. He is backed up by Chris Vaughn.
KICK RETURNER: Chris Culliver handled the bulk of the kick return duties a year ago, returning 34 kicks for 809 yards, the second-highest yard total in school history. He was named to the All-SEC Freshmen team as a kick returner after averaging 23.8 yards per return. Captain Munnerlyn and Moe Brown are also potential kickoff returners, but several other names could figure in the mix by the fall.
PUNT RETURNER: Captain Munnerlyn did a solid job in the punt return game in 2007, returning 18 punts for 165 yards, including a career-long 46 yard return against Vanderbilt. He ranked seventh in the SEC among punt returners with an average of 9.2 yards per return. Kenny McKinley has returned 39 punts during his Carolina career and has the surest hands. Bobby Wallace may be able to work his way onto the field in the punt return game as well.