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Aug. 3, 2012

What will they do for an encore?

After establishing several “Football Firsts” in 2011, including an 11-win season, a final Top-10 ranking in both the Associated Press and USA TODAY Coaches’ polls, a Top-10 finish in the final BCS Standings, six SEC wins, and an undefeated mark against SEC Eastern Division opponents, the 2012 edition of South Carolina Football will be challenged by increased expectations, loftier goals and a possible Top-10 preseason ranking.

The biggest change for the 2012 team from that of 2011 isn’t so much the players on the field, but rather those who are coaching them up. Gone are assistant coaches John Butler, Jay Graham, Jeep Hunter and Ellis Johnson, along with strength & conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. Head coach Steve Spurrier feels he has put together another solid staff however, adding Kirk Botkin (linebackers/Spurs), Grady Brown (secondary), Joe Robinson (special teams/tight ends) and Everette Sands (running backs) to the staff, while promoting Lorenzo Ward to run the defense and Joe Connolly to monitor the strength program.

With 42 lettermen returning, including 13 starters from a team that went 11-2, captured the Capital One Bowl and finished as the number nine team in the country, the Gamecocks are poised to battle for another SEC Eastern Division title in 2012. But the road to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game will be as tough as ever. In addition to the traditional week-to-week grind of competing in the toughest conference in the country, the SEC has added Missouri to the East and Texas A&M to the West, increasing the number of teams in each division to seven. While keeping with an eight-game conference slate, the schedule makers did Carolina no favors this year, as their two Western Division opponents are LSU and Arkansas, two teams that finished in the Top-5 in the country last season.

The Gamecocks will begin the 2012 season with a road conference test at Vanderbilt on Thursday, August 30. A pair of home non-conference games follow, with East Carolina and UAB set to make trips to Columbia. The Gamecocks’ conference home opener is slated for September 22 when the Missouri Tigers come calling in the “Battle of Columbia.” A road trip to Kentucky wraps up the month of September. Carolina faces what appears to be a stiff gauntlet in October with home games against Georgia and Tennessee sandwiched around a pair of road tilts at LSU and Florida. The final SEC regular season contest will see Arkansas visit Williams-Brice Stadium for Homecoming on November 10. The final two regular season games will feature non-conference in-state rivals Wofford and Clemson.

The Carolina offense officially returns seven starters, including many of the key playmakers from last season’s squad that averaged over 30 points and just under 400 yards of total offense while using a balanced attack. Gone are record-setting wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who skipped his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, a pair of offensive linemen in Terrence Campbell and Rokevious Watkins, and walk-on starting fullback Dalton Wilson. Offensive tackle Kyle Nunn and wide receiver Jason Barnes also saw considerable action during their Gamecock careers. Led by Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw, who has won eight of his nine career starts, the Gamecocks return 89 percent of their rushing yards, 64 percent of their passing yards and 66 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago. While the final play-calling will remain in the hands of the Head Ball Coach, Shawn Elliott and Steve Spurrier Jr. were promoted in the offseason to co-offensive coordinators.

QUARTERBACK: Junior Connor Shaw took over the starting quarterback duties midway through the 2011 campaign and proved he was a winner. Boasting an impressive 8-1 record in nine starts, Shaw owns the best record over the past 40 years for a Gamecock signal-caller through nine games. Boasting the highest completion rate in school history at 66.1 percent through his first two seasons, Shaw completed 65.4 percent of his passes (123-for-188) with 14 touchdowns while tossing just six interceptions in 2011. He also can effectively use his legs, as he scampered 135 times for 525 yards (second on the squad) with eight TDs. Shaw improved as the season progressed and he became more comfortable in his role. Over the final three games (The Citadel, Clemson and Nebraska), all Gamecock wins, he completed 41-of-55 passes (74.5 percent) for 657 yards with eight touchdowns and just one pick. Redshirt sophomore Dylan Thompson had a solid spring and took the lead for the all-important backup role behind Shaw. He will continue to be challenged by senior walk-on Seth Strickland, who is also the holder on placements and has a regular spot on the travel roster, with redshirt freshman Tanner McEvoy in the mix as well. Junior Andrew Clifford and walk-on Austin Hails provide depth, while newcomer Brendan Nosovitch comes highly touted after an impressive record-setting prep career in Pennsylvania.

TAILBACK: The Gamecocks are loaded at the tailback position, a plethora of riches for new assistant coach Everette Sands, led by one of the nation’s best in junior Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore was held out of spring drills after suffering a knee injury and subsequent surgery midway through the 2011 campaign. Despite playing just seven games, he led the team with 818 yards rushing (116.9 per game) and scored 10 rushing touchdowns. He had four 100-yard rushing games in 2011, including a career best 37-carry, 246-yard, three-touchdown explosion against Navy. Lattimore’s rehab was progressing on schedule, meaning a return to 100 percent by fall camp is a strong possibility. If that’s the case, he should be on everyone’s Heisman Trophy watch list entering the season. In the unlikely event Lattimore is not ready to go, the drop off will not be significant, as Carolina features several other quality backs worthy of playing time. Senior Kenny Miles missed part of last season with a wrist injury, but showed what he could do late in the season with impressive performances in the wins over Clemson and Nebraska. The team’s top rusher in 2009, Miles owns three 100-yard rushing games and is just 18 yards short of 1,000 yards rushing in his career. A fifth-year player, Miles has earned his degree and could have taken his talents to another school to finish up his eligibility, but he elected to remain part of the Gamecock program and had an impressive spring, earning the Joe Morrison Offensive Player of the Spring award. Sophomore Brandon Wilds was considered a redshirt candidate when the `11 season began, but as the injuries continued to mount, Wilds climbed the depth chart and was impressive in his own right with three 100-yard rushing games, including a 137-yard effort in the win at Tennessee in his first career start. Redshirt freshman Shon Carson earned his way up to the second-team unit early last fall before suffering a knee injury at Georgia. Like Lattimore, he missed the spring, but is expected to be at full strength in the fall. Two talented newcomers in Mike Davis and Kendric Salley will join the fold in the fall. Salley is another rusher working his way back from a knee injury. Walk-on Joshua Blue adds depth.

FULLBACK: The Gamecocks used a lot of one-back sets during the 2011 campaign and are expected to again in 2012, but when they did have a two-back set, the fullback duties were in the capable hands of walk-on Dalton Wilson. Wilson did an admirable job as a blocker, but never touched the pigskin. Don’t be surprised if tight end Justice Cunningham gets some reps when the Gamecocks are in a two-back set this year. Former linebacker Qua Gilchrist transitioned to the fullback position in the spring and is listed atop the depth chart entering the fall. The senior from Abbeville, S.C. was a running back in high school, so the conversion should come fairly easily. Senior walk-on Jacob Baker returns from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2011 campaign. Sophomore walk-on Connor McLaurin returns to add depth and will be joined by newcomer Ty Sutherland.

WIDE RECEIVER: One of the biggest holes to fill on the squad is that which has been left by Alshon Jeffery, the school’s all-time leader in career receiving yards and who tied for the most touchdown catches in school history. Admittedly, Jeffery did not have a great season by his standards in 2011, but everyone knew he was the go-to guy in key situations and he often times saved his best performances for the biggest games, as witnessed by his MVP performance in the 2012 Capital One Bowl. But Steve Spurrier Jr. has had to replace some greats ones before like Sidney Rice and Kenny McKinley. There are plenty of candidates from which to chose, led by junior Ace Sanders. Sanders is the squad’s leading returner with 29 catches for 383 yards a season ago. He figures to get the nod at one of the starting spots. Should Carolina open in a three-wide set, senior D.L. Moore and junior DeAngelo Smith are penciled in as the other starters heading into fall camp. Both are looking to bounce back after sub-par 2011 campaigns. Moore is a big target at six-feet, four-inches, but saw his numbers drop considerably last season after a promising 2010 season. Smith was the star of the 2011 Garnet & Black Spring Game with three touchdown catches, but was unable to match that kind of performance last fall. Should either falter, there are plenty of players waiting in the wings, two of whom spent the offseason participating in other sports. Sophomore speedster Damiere Byrd spent the winter and spring sprinting for the Gamecock track team. He is certainly the team’s best deep threat and earned the “Most Improved” distinction in the spring. Sophomore Bruce Ellington will play football for a second season after originally coming to Carolina as a basketball recruit. He still plays point guard on the hardwood, but is more than capable of making a big play with the pigskin in his hands. Ellington is also a candidate to take the direct snap in the “Wildcat” formation. Sophomore Nick Jones is another experienced wideout who showed flashes last season of being able to make a big play, working his way into two starting assignments. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Shamier Jeffery and K.J. Brent, had solid springs and could work their way into the rotation this fall. Three scholarship wide receivers, Jody Fuller, Shaq Roland and Kwinton Smith, join the corps this fall. Roland is the most decorated of the three, earning South Carolina “Mr. Football” accolades, the fourth consecutive “Mr. Football” in the state to sign with the Gamecocks, joining Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney. Walk-ons Cody Gilbert, Blair Lowery, Dwayne Duckett and Sidney Rhodes provide depth.

TIGHT END: The Gamecocks were admittedly a little thin at this position a year ago, but look to have a better crop of capable tight ends in camp this fall. New tight ends coach Joe Robinson will have the services of the top two returning tight ends at his disposal in senior Justice Cunningham and sophomore Rory Anderson. Cunningham is an excellent blocker and an important cog in the Gamecocks’ running attack. As mentioned previously, he could also be more of an “H” back, similar to the role that Patrick DiMarco was used in two years ago. Anderson proved to be a big-play threat, as he averaged 23.5 yards on eight catches with three touchdowns. Developing behind those two are redshirt freshman Drew Owens and Kelvin Rainey, who was an early enrollee after graduating from high school in December and went through spring drills. Owens, who was the “Most Improved” tight end in the spring, injured a knee in the spring game that required surgery and may not be at 100 percent when fall camp opens. Newcomer Jerrell Adams will join the cast in the fall.

OFFENSIVE LINE: The Gamecocks will be relatively young on the offensive line in 2012 after losing three of their top blockers to graduation in all-SEC performer Rokevious Watkins, Terrence Campbell and Kyle Nunn. Fifth-year senior center T.J. Johnson returns as the leader of the group. He has started every game over the past three seasons and should be an honors candidate in his final year in the Garnet & Black. He will likely leave as the school’s all-time leader in career starts. Flanking him on the left side should be sophomore guard A.J. Cann. Cann started every game last fall while earning Freshman All-America accolades and figures to only get better. Junior Ronald Patrick gets the first shot at right guard. He has seen limited time over the past two seasons. A pair of youngsters will most likely earn the starting nods at the two tackle positions in what appears to be a three-man contest. True sophomore Mike Matulis sat out the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery but should be ready to go in the fall. He is considered a returning starter after getting the nod in five contests, including the last four games of the `12 season. Redshirt sophomore Cody Gibson also gained valuable experience last season while splitting time at the right tackle spot. He made four starts a year ago. They, along with highly-touted redshirt freshman Brandon Shell figure to be the odds-on-favorite for the starting spots. Shell has the right bloodlines, as his great uncle, Art Shell, is an NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman. Redshirt freshman Kyle Harris could become a factor at either the guard or center position. Senior Kaleb Broome along with walk-ons Travis Ford, Ryland Culbertson and Kyle Madden, have been around the program and add veteran depth. Sophomore Corey Robinson made the transition in the spring back from the defensive side of the ball to the more familiar offensive spot and is listed as the second team left tackle entering the fall behind Shell. Redshirt freshman Will Sport could be a darkhorse candidate to garner playing time along the offensive line. He enters the fall listed as the second team left guard behind Cann. Shell and Sport shared “Most Improved” accolades along the offensive front line in the spring. True freshmen, twin brothers Brock and Clayton Stadnik, graduated from high school early and enrolled at Carolina in January. Brock, a tackle and the more highly-touted of the two, sat out the spring after shoulder surgery. Clayton adds depth to the interior. Two additional road graters are slated to arrive this fall but are likely headed for redshirt seasons. The duo includes Cody Waldrop and Mason Zandi, who, at six-feet, nine-inches, is believed to be the tallest recruit in South Carolina football history.

The Carolina defense, the team’s strong suit over the past few seasons, will be hard-pressed to match the outstanding numbers it posted in 2011. That squad ranked third in the country in total defense, allowing just 267.7 yards per game, and second in the country in pass defense, surrendering just 131.7 yards through the air. Gone from that unit are Antonio Allen, Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, Rodney Paulk, Travian Robertson and C.C. Whitlock, along with the man who was in charge of the defense, Ellis Johnson. But Lorenzo Ward, who was promoted to take over the defense just prior to the Capital One Bowl, showed he is more than capable, as his unit held Nebraska scoreless over the final three quarters and limited the Cornhuskers to just 64 yards in the second half in his debut. While those players will be missed for their leadership and big-play ability, the cupboard is far from bare. The names expected to receive the lion’s share of headlines are defensive ends Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, Spur DeVonte Holloman and D.J. Swearinger.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Brad Lawing’s defensive front should be the strength of this year’s squad despite the loss of All-American Melvin Ingram and team leader Travian Robertson. The Gamecock defensive end position will be as good as any in the country, as it features senior Devin Taylor, who has been an all-SEC performer, on one side and sophomore Jadeveon Clowney, the SEC Freshman of the Year, on the other. Taylor ranks among the Gamecocks’ career top-10 in both sacks (T5th-15.5) and tackles for loss (T9th-27.0). Clowney was on everyone’s Freshman All-America squad last season after logging 12.0 tackles for loss including 8.0 quarterback sacks. He also forced five fumbles. He has not rested on his laurels, having been selected as the Joe Morrison Defensive Player of the Spring. The Gamecocks not only have tremendous starters, but also feature excellent depth at defensive end. Junior Chaz Sutton and senior Aldrick Fordham are listed as the second-teamers. Sutton, who was honored as the “Most Improved” defensive lineman in the spring, could start for many teams, while Fordham is excited to move to the edge after playing as an undersized tackle last season. Redshirt freshmen Deon Green and Gerald Dixon hope to work their way into the rotation however, Green has not set foot on the practice field in over a year while working his way back from an injury. Walk-ons Jamal Hall and Michael Washington add depth. Sophomore Kelcy Quarles moved into the starting lineup midway through the 2011 campaign and garnered some Freshman All-America postseason accolades. He figures to be a mainstay in the middle of the line. Outside of Clowney, Quarles, whose father, Buddy, also played at Carolina, may have as much upside as anyone along the defensive front. Senior Byron Jerideau, who possesses tremendous strength, has the early lead on the other starting tackle position, replacing Robertson. His tremendous work in the weight room should translate well to the field this fall. The tackle position does not have the same depth that the end position features, as the backups have yet to prove themselves on the field. Sophomore J.T. Surratt is the only one of the group that has seen any playing time. Gerald Dixon Jr. and Phillip Dukes showed enough that the coaches felt comfortable moving Corey Robinson back to the offensive side of the ball. Like Quarles, half brothers Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr. are the sons of a former Gamecock, Gerald Dixon. The lone February signee to make his way to Columbia this fall, Darius English, is a defensive end.

LINEBACKER: The Gamecocks return most of their linebacking corps from last year’s unit with the exception of Rodney Paulk, who played in more games than anyone in the history of the program. New assistant coach Kirk Botkin will be in charge of the linebackers and Spurs in 2012. He is greeted by a senior-laden unit that has some interchangeable parts. The linebacking corps is led by returning starters Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens. However, both are penciled in to compete at the Mike position this fall. Wilson returned to the lineup in 2011 after missing the 2010 season with hamstring injury and was fourth on the team with 52 tackles, while Bowens finally was able to stay healthy for an entire season and gave a solid performance with 44 stops. A pair of three-year letterwinners in Damario Jeffery and Quin Smith are slated to split time at the Will position. Jeffery, who was considered the “Most Improved” linebacker in the spring, moves inside after playing the Spur position last year. Smith is a hard-hitter who made 48 tackles a year ago. He missed much of the spring with some back issues but is slated to be at full tilt this fall. Junior Chaun Gresham and redshirt freshman Mason Harris are the reserve scholarship Mike linebackers, but both have been moved around trying to find their best positions and could possibly move again. Redshirt freshmen Cedrick Cooper, who also experienced some back issues in the spring, will serve as the backup at the Will position and could factor in on special teams. Three walk-ons, Marcus Lyerly, Darian Sims and Darrius Williams, joined the squad in the spring and add depth. T.J. Holloman and Kaiwan Lewis will join the linebacking corps this fall.

SPUR: One of the biggest holes to fill on the squad will be replacing second-team All-American Antonio Allen, one of the team’s top playmakers from a year ago. Senior DeVonte Holloman will get the first crack at the starting Spur position, a hybrid linebacker-safety spot on the Carolina defense. Holloman actually began the 2011 campaign working behind Allen at the position, but was moved back to strong safety early in the campaign, where he finished fifth on the squad with 51 tackles. Sophomore Sharrod Golightly worked at both the Spur and safety positions last year and enters the fall as the second team Spur. Redshirt freshman Marcquis Roberts missed the entire 2011 campaign after undergoing shoulder surgery, then suffered a torn ACL and is likely going to miss the 2012 season as well. Expectations are high for incoming freshman Jordan Diggs, another player whose father, Shed, played at South Carolina.

CORNERBACK: The Gamecocks will need to replace three of their top four cornerbacks from a season ago, as seniors C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett departed, along with junior Stephon Gilmore, who elected to take his wares to the next level as a top-10 NFL Draft pick. All three were good enough to receive an invitation to an NFL camp. New secondary coach Grady Brown will welcome back the services of senior Akeem Auguste, who sat out nearly the entire 2011 season with a foot injury, suffered just prior to the start of fall camp. Auguste has played both cornerback and safety in his career, but was penciled in as a probable starter at corner a year ago before the injury ended those plans. He did not practice in the spring, but is expected to be at full strength in the fall. Sophomore Victor Hampton figures to be the probable starter on the other side of the field. Hampton is a very physical corner who gained some experience last season in a backup role. If he can remain focused, he has the tools to become an excellent player. One of the challenges the coaches face is developing quality depth behind Auguste and Hampton. Athletic junior Jimmy Legree moves back to his more natural cornerback position after making a couple starts early in the 2011 season at free safety. Sophomore Cadarious Sanders is the only other cornerback with any game experience. Redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian narrowly missed making Coach Ray Tanner’s baseball team this spring, and was considered the “Most Improved” defensive back in the spring. Senior walk-on Jared Shaw was impressive in the spring as well, earning some rave reviews from the coaching staff. Another walk-on, Jessie Dukes, did a solid job in the spring. Shaw and Dukes will add depth and compete with newcomers Chaz Elder, Rico McWilliams and Chris Moody for regular work this fall.

SAFETY: Senior D.J. Swearinger returns for his final season in the Garnet & Black and is a leader, not only in the secondary, but on the entire squad. An all-star candidate, Swearinger is the team’s top returning tackler with 80 stops a season ago. He also showed an ability to make the big play at key times, as his interceptions at Mississippi State and Tennessee were both critical in the Gamecock wins. He is versatile and knowledgeable enough to play either safety position, but enters the fall penciled in as the starter at free safety. Sophomore Brison Williams solidified his role as the probable starter at the strong safety position in the spring. Williams enrolled at Carolina in January 2011 and came out of that spring as the probable starter as a true freshman entering the fall. A broken arm during fall camp set him back and, although he garnered some playing time, never was able to regain that starting role. Like the cornerback position, creating depth at the safety positions will be a key for Lorenzo Ward and Grady Brown. A pair of second-year players, Kadetrix Marcus and Sheldon Royster, are working hard in an effort to gain the coaches’ trust. Marcus made a huge impression with his efforts in the weight room during the off-season and hopes to carry that over to the gridiron. Royster battled some health issues last fall, but is being counted on to be a factor this fall. Walk-on Kenny Robinson returns for his second season in the program. He saw some action last season as a freshman on special teams. Newcomers Kyle Fleetwood and T.J. Gurley may be asked to contribute early on.

The Gamecock special teams unit will have a new look this season, as Joe Robinson takes over as the special teams coordinator. Robinson will have his hands full as he looks to replace Jay Wooten and Joey Scribner-Howard, who handled the placekicking and punting chores, respectively, last season. While the Gamecocks showed some improvement in the return game last year, including a punt return for a touchdown, there is still room for growth, as Carolina ranked in the lower half in the country in both kickoff and punt returns.

PLACEKICKER: The field goal and extra point duties were wide open heading into the spring following the departure of Jay Wooten, but senior walk-on Adam Yates separated himself with a solid performance, earning the distinction of “Most Improved” kicker in camp, and would be considered the leader in the clubhouse as fall camp opens. Redshirt freshman Landon Ard showed a strong leg as well, but needs to gain a little more consistency. Yates will try to hold off the charge of freshman Nick St. Germain, who will join the competition in the fall. St. Germain is the first recruited scholarship placekicker on the squad since Ryan Succop.

KICKOFFS: The kickoff duties are still up in the air, with neither Adam Yates nor Landon Ard proving to be significantly better than the other in the spring. This is a battle that will continue to be waged through the fall, with Nick St. Germain entering the mix here as well. Yates has the advantage with game experience under his belt, as he handled the kickoff duties for much of the 2009 season. PUNTER: Like the placekicking situation, the punting duties were wide open entering the spring. However, unlike the placekicking situation, neither sophomore Patrick Fish nor junior Mike Williamson could lock down the position heading into the fall. Fish is a rare commodity in that he came to Carolina on scholarship, but has yet to validate that opportunity. Williamson is a transfer who formerly punted for Columbia University and garnered “Most Improved” punter accolades in the spring. Brett Cleveland joined the squad as a walk-on in the spring and provides depth. A fall addition, either scholarship kicker Nick St. Germain, or a walk-on who has yet to don a Garnet & Black practice jersey, could wind up as the Gamecocks’ primary punter in 2012.

LONG SNAPPER: The long snapping duties are in the capable hands of senior Walker Inabinet. He handled the often overlooked role admirably last season despite being a bit undersized at 5-10 and 204 pounds. Junior walk-on Davis Moore figures to back up Inabinet, along with redshirt freshman Coleman Harley.

KICK RETURNER: Sophomore Bruce Ellington handled the bulk of the kickoff returns last season, accounting for 20 of the 37 returns with a 23.1-yard average and a long of 45 yards. Sophomore Victor Hampton showed promise with a team-best 25.4 yard return average on seven kicks, including a 55-yarder, the longest of the season for a Gamecock. Speedster Damiere Byrd, the fastest player on the squad, is another potential candidate for kick return duties, although several players could find themselves in the mix.

PUNT RETURNER: Ace Sanders figures to be the odd-on-favorite to handle the punt return duties again in 2012. He averaged 9.3 yards per return a year ago, including a 68-yard dash for a score in the season opener against East Carolina. Like the kick return duties, several other players will get a look in the fall to see how they respond to the task.

HOLDER: Reserve quarterback Seth Strickland has served as the team’s holder on placements for each of the past two seasons. He is expected to retain those duties again in his senior season. Patrick Fish served as the backup holder in the spring.