With the first 5 games of the season discussed, and apparently my compatriots spitting in the face of fate and predicting we get here undefeated, we reach game 6, an October 6th date in the Palmetto State with the Three Rivers Roosters. Let's do this.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Head Coach: Some crybaby jerk
Location: Southern Newark
Mascot: A giant chicken
2011 record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC, and yes whiners, they all count)
SB Nation affiliate: Garnet and Black Attack
A look at their roster, after the jump
We'll start with the disclaimer: A little less than two months away, things will not be as they currently appear. Someone, if not multiple someones, will get hurt. Others will fail to pan out as expected, while another steps up unexpectedly. While two months will go by quickly, there is a lot of things that can happen between now and then. But with my crystal ball being looking more like a magic 8 ball right now, I'll make projections based on current appearances.
Offense: Flowery Branch product Connor Shaw returns at QB, and his development will be important to how what kind of points the Gamecocks spit out. He rose up last year in place of Stephen "PARTY!" Garcia, and performed admirably. After getting the nod against Kentucky, he led South Carolina to a 7-1 finish. Unlike Garcia, he checked down instead of just chunking it to Alshon Jeffrey in triple coverage, so the man can make reads. That'll be important this year, because without Jeffrey, the Gamecocks lack their usual elite go-to WR (Troy Williamson, Sidney Rice, et al). He completed over 65% of his passes last year, so he's accurate even if part of that is due to being risk adverse and settling for short throws in the flats. Whether he can beat a team throwing long remains to be seen though, especially without Jeffrey winning jump balls. But 5 games in (they open @ Vandy, then host East Carolina, UAB, and Missouri, before a trip to Kentucky in the Saturday prior to our visit), Grantham should have a good idea just what kind of range Shaw and his WRs have through the air.
That WR is a big question mark right now. Ace Sanders has shown speed and some good work in the slot, but he only had 29 receptions last year, and isn't an ideal go to threat. SR DL Moore has failed to ever produce much, and the other returning receiver discussed has been Damiere Byrd, a sophomore speedster out of New Jersey, who combined with Byrd for 9 total receptions all last year. Part time basketball player Bruce Ellington has shown some play making ability in his 5'10 frame, but like Sanders, may lack the size to be a #1. Shaq Roland was signed to great acclaim, and while he may develop in to that next in the aforementioned line of great pass catchers, being elite is different than being a go-to guy as a true freshman. Kwinton Smith is another true freshman pass catcher. And he has ideal size and speed, as well as being a bit more advanced after enrolling early, so he may be the best bet to develop into a significant threat running routes. You may hear some crowing about their TEs, but Spurrier has never really used that position much. Still, it should be noted that McEachern product Rory Anderson scored 3 TDs and averaged over 20 yards a catch (on 8 receptions) as a true freshman last year, and certainly has potential to force Spurrier to change past usage patterns.
Spurrier has shown that ability to change with Marcus Lattimore. The potential Heisman candidate, if healthy, has been unstoppable against us. In his two games against Grantham's defense, he's run over, around, and past defenders for 358 yards and 3 TDs on a Herschel-like workload of 64 carries. He's owned the 4th quarter in both games to seal big wins for his team, and with the game not coming until October, he'll have plenty of time to knock off any rust and regain confidence in his injured knee. And if he happens to reinjure that knee (or suffering injury elsewhere), his backups are no slouches. Brandon Wilds, a sophomore from nearby Blythewood, stepped in after Lattimore went down last year and rumbled for over 100 yards against Tennessee, Florida, and The Citadel. Senior Kenny Miles, who played at Brookwood High School in Atlanta, had several big carries against Clemson and in the bowl vs. Nebraska. Add Stephenson's Mike Davis (yes, the Gamecocks hit the Peach State hard for talent), and a talented ball carrier will not be an issue for Spurrier's new run based offense.
Blocking for Lattimore and friends will be SR LB turned FB Qua Gilchrist, and a retooled OL. A big part of the Gamecocks improved form the past couple years has been due to the hiring of OL coach Shawn Elliot from Appalachian St. They return C TJ Johnson, and G AJ Cann, who started every game alongside each other last year. So the OL should be solid, especially if redshirt freshman Brandon Shell (nephew of Art Shell) pans out like the stud he's expected to be when we, and everyone else, went hard after him out of high school. The 6'6, 330+ pound behemoth sat out most of last year with a shoulder injury.
Defense: Under new/old DC Lorenzo Ward (he's held the defensive coordinator title for the passt 3 seasons working under "assistant head coach" Ellis Johnson), there are some changes to what was a strong defense last year. Ward is said to be looking to be more aggressive in his blitzing than the more relaxed Johnson Gamecocks, which may or may not be necessary considering what they return at DE.
Devin Taylor, a 6'8 senior, had 6 sacks last year, and 15 on his career. He hasn't been much in run support, but can get after the passer. DTs Bryon Jerideau and Kelcy Quarles just need to be space eaters in the middle, and beat 1 on 1 blocking. That's cause DE Jadeveon Clowney looked like the real deal as a freshman. He was inconsistent, but the size and speed were as good as it gets, and he showed a play making ability off the edge that hasn't been seen in the SEC since Jevon Kearse, if not Derrick Thomas. Ward is said to be experimenting with him at MLB and other unusual spots to keep opponents guessing on where he's coming from. That may be outsmarting themselves though, cause that 6'6, 270 or so, coming fast off the corner should be hard enough to contend with for those trying to stop the 'Cocks playmaker. Health is critical here though, because the depth doesn't seem nearly as strong up front as it was last year for South Carolina (of course, that appearance may change when the season starts). Perhaps only funny to me note, their roster lists both a Gerald Dixon, and a Gerald Dixon, Jr amongst their reserve DL. Both are redshirt FR from Rock Hill, sons of former Gamecock and NFL LB Gerald Dixon, Sr.
Their LB core looks decent but nothing special, with Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens and either senior Quin Smith or senior Demario Jeffrey projected as the starters in their 4-3/4-2-5 set. They are solid players, but none standout as a big time run stuffer, pass rusher, or cover man underneath. But it is a veteran unit with a lot of experience that should excel in reading opposing offenses and should make it difficult for opponents to break big plays.
DB is their primary question mark defensively, having to replace Stephon Gilmore, Antonio Allen, and CC Whitlock. Akeem Auguste missed last year due to a foot injury, but he started 10 games at FS the year before, and 9 at CB as a sophomore. Victor Hampton is said to be the other CB across Auguste, and while he's been suspect so far mentally, his physical tools are right in line what has been, like at WR, a line of several solid NFL players for the Gamecocks at CB since Athens native Dunta Robinson started the trend a decade ago. SR S DJ Swearinger returns to man FS, and he's had a strong career over the top with 165 career tackles and 4 career picks. DeVonte Holloman, another senior, looks to be starting alongside him at S, and while the listed 240+ pounder may be exploited in man coverage, he'll also make opponents think twice about crossing the field with big hits over the middle.
Special Teams: Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington were their return men last year, and both were effective at the jobs. They may be needed more at WR, and not risked in the kicking game, but with guys like Roland, Byrd, and redshirt freshman RB Shon Carson around, finding a quality return man shouldn't be a problem. Senior Walker Inabinet returns at deep snapper. Never heard of him? That's exactly what you want in your snapper. Who puts their foot to the ball is another story though. South Carolina has historically had trouble finding kickers, and like Georgia, they have to replace both their placekicker and punter this fall. There are a grab bag of candidates here, with redshirt frehsman walkon Landon Ard beating out walkon senior Adam Yates for the top kicker spot this spring. Spurrier signed Nick St. Germain, out of McEachern, this spring to hopefully take the job from Ard or TYates. At punter, sophomore Patrick Fish is on scholarship, so the likely lead candidate for that job. But he's never played a college game, while walk ons Tyler Hull (who kicked in 10 games at Guilford College two years ago) and Mike Williamson (who registered 24 punts as a freshman at the Ivy League's Columbia three years ago) both have experience. Who's handling these duties, and how well they do, is a complete toss up.
Prediction time: This game could go either way, and a lot will depends on whose OL can keep the others' DL on their heels and out of their backfield. I'm expecting a low scoring affair (which means bet the over), and will go 9-7, bad guys. Prove me wrong Dawgs, prove me wrong.