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July 18, 2006The following is the fifth in a series of position previews.
After constructing one of the greatest individual seasons in South Carolina history, the question entering the 2006 season is this - what does Sidney Rice do for an encore?
Become a better wide receiver, for one thing.
Rice - possibly the humblest superstar in college football - shattered the USC record book in 2005. He set new school records with 1,143 receiving yards and 13 touchdown receptions. He also established a new school standard by catching a touchdown pass in eight consecutive games.
His total of 70 catches was the second-highest single season total in Gamecock history, and he was named the National Freshman of the Year by Rivals.com.
And to think he'll just be a redshirt sophomore this season.
So, what is Rice pondering as a new season is about to dawn?
Taking his game to another level.
"I think I could always improve on every part of my game. Catching balls, blocking, running routes, there is always room for improvement," Rice said.
Is there a way to make a perfect song even more perfect? We're about to find out.
Rice, though, declines the opportunity to quantify what he can accomplish in his second season of major college football.
"I haven't set my goals for this year yet," Rice said. "I have confidence in my abilities and I'm going to just go out there and try to do my very best to help this team win."
All hyperbole aside, it's no secret entering the campaign that Rice will face constant double teams from opponents geared to shutting down the All-American receiver.
Rice shrugs that prospect off, knowing it will open things up for another receiver to step up and make plays.
"If they double me, we've got some real talented wide receivers that will make them pay," Rice said. "We all have confidence in one another that each of us can make the plays we need to help us win."
If he enjoys a season anywhere close to last season, Rice is prepared for the barrage of questions he will face from the media about leaving early for the NFL Draft.
Rice will be three years removed from his high school graduation by next spring, he is eligible to enter the draft.
Playing for pay, though, is the farthest thing from his mind right now.
"I am not focused on the NFL at all," Rice said. "I am just trying to get ready to play this year and help this team win."
Head coach Steve Spurrier's biggest concern regarding Rice is that he remains composed with all the pre-season publicity he has received.
"Hopefully, Sidney will remain level-headed," Spurrier said. "I think he has and that he will continue to play at a very high level like he has."
Rice suffered a broken thumb midway through spring practice trying to dunk a basketball during a pickup game but it appears the injury has fully healed.
That's bad news for USC's opponents.
While it appeared sometimes last season that Rice was the Gamecocks' only wide receiver, the position is abundant with talent this season.
The key question is who will step up to become the number two receiver and make teams reluctant to double team Rice.
The early favorite is sophomore Kenny McKinley, who finished his freshman season with 25 catches, third most on the club.
His only touchdown grab of the season came at an opportune time - the final play of the third quarter at Arkansas when he snatched the 42-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Blake Mitchell to score the final points of USC's 14-10 victory.
His best overall game, though, may have come at Tennessee the previous week when he made several huge catches, including one on a 3rd-and-16 play that allowed the Gamecocks to escape the shadow of their end zone.
While Syvelle Newton has been tabbed for a number of positions, including shotgun quarterback and running back, he will probably see his most action at wide receiver.
He had 27 catches and two touchdowns in seven games before sustaining a season-ending Achilles tendon injury against Vanderbilt.
Newton is nearing full recovery from his devastating injury, which occurred on a third-quarter touchdown scamper against the Commodores.
"Syvelle is coming around nicely from his injury," Spurrier said recently. "If he comes back 100 percent we have to get the ball in his hands. He can make things happen. That's what we need."
One of the most watched experiments during spring practice was the transformation of Mike West - one of the fastest players on the team - from outside linebacker to wide receiver.
The experiment seemed to work, as West appeared far more comfortable catching the ball over the middle than he did tackling SEC running backs or covering wide receivers as a defender.
West has been listed on the depth chart released a few days ago by USC as the backup to Rice.
Possibly the biggest enigma among USC's talented corps of wide receivers may be O.J. Murdock, one of the most heavily recruited players in the 2005 class.
Murdock came to USC hoping to impress the Gamecocks fans during his freshman campaign but suffered a number of setbacks before the coaches decided to redshirt him.
Murdock enjoyed a solid spring game with a pair of catches, including a 42-yard touchdown reception from Cade Thompson in the second quarter.
Murdock possesses world-class speed. It's just a matter of learning to hang onto the football for the Tampa, Fla., native when it's thrown his way.
"O.J. is a very fast guy but he doesn't play fast when he's wearing his football uniform," Spurrier said. "He's just another guy out there."
The fairest way to describe the career of Noah Whiteside is frustrating. He came to USC as one of the top wideouts in the Palmetto State but physical setbacks - such as last season's severe foot and ankle injuries - have limited his production over the course of his career.
Entering his senior season, Whiteside, who starred at Greenville High School, has 32 career catches for three touchdowns. His best season came in 2004 when he had 20 receptions for 290 total yards.
Entering spring practice in 2005, it was Whiteside, not Rice, that fans were expecting to have a breakout season. But he suffered a serious ankle injury in the spring game that required surgery and weeks of immobilization and he was never the same throughout the season.
Whiteside - taking advantage of Rice's absence - had the honor of scoring the initial touchdown of the Spurrier era on USC's opening possession but he had just six catches the rest of the season, none over the final five contests.
Part of Whiteside's downfall has been the fact he has fought academic eligibility issues for the last couple of years. Whiteside had to pass several courses this summer to retain his eligibility for the 2006 season.
The most impressive receiver during the Garnet and Black game may have been redshirt freshman Freddie Brown, who graduated from the highly successful program at Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C.
Brown, who had a 6-yard touchdown and a 56-yard touchdown among his four receptions in the spring game, was listed on the summer depth chart as the fourth-team wide receiver.
Incoming freshman Moe Brown of Anderson, S.C., will be given every opportunity to compete for a starting spot in fall camp. He was one of the top wide receivers in South Carolina last year and earned a position on the Shrine Bowl squad.
Brown certainly believes he has the ability to become the third option behind Rice and McKinley.
"I know I'll be flying under the radar," Brown said. "I don't think many people know that much about me. I think I'll be able to surprise some people. I plan on having a significant impact on the offense. If they put me in 1-and-1 situations, I think I'll be prepared. I think I'll catch something around 30 balls."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Sidney Rice, Kenny McKinley, Syvelle Newton.
RESERVES: Freddie Brown, Moe Brown, O.J. Murdock, Mike West, Noah Whiteside.
WALK-ONS: Leon Gamble, Paul Haile, Jamal Hayes, Scott Spurrier
Other in-depth position previews:
• Cook(ing) up something tasty at tight end
• Defensive line trying to find weight balance
• Three new starters means fresh start for linebackers
• White will anchor inexperienced offensive line
• Gamecock backfield primed for success
• Pressure's on Bennett to lead youthful secondary
• Battle to become Mitchell's backup will be fierce
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