March 10, 2008

Spring Preview: Step Up Time For Young WR's

With Kenny McKinley sidelined with a toe injury and Dion Lecorn still suspended pending resolution of his legal matter, spring practice affords a golden opportunity for someone other than South Carolina's top two wide receivers to step up and earn playing time in 2008.

But who will it be?

Will it be one of the veterans like juniors Freddie Brown or Moe Brown, or one of last year's heralded newcomers such as Mark Barnes, Jason Barnes, Chris Culliver and Joseph Hills?

And whatever happened to Larry Freeman?

Finally, how quickly will 2008 signee Charles Whitlock, one of the top players in the Palmetto State during the last recycling cycle, be able to rise up the depth chart?

There's no question that in the eyes of head coach Steve Spurrier this spring is critically important for many of USC's current wide receivers.

USC signed one wide receiver in this year's recruiting class - D.L. Moore of Bowling Green, Ky. - but USC will enter spring practice with 11 scholarship receivers, more than enough for Spurrier.

"We need to coach what we've got," Spurrier said. "These players can run and catch and they're ready to start playing. We need to have a really good spring practice finding out who can play receiver. We return most of those guys. We just need to do a good job coaching this spring."

Except for McKinley and Lecorn, the wide receiver position struggled for consistency last season. Only four of USC's top 11 pass catchers in 2007 were wideouts. The other seven included three tight ends, two running backs and two fullbacks.

With few deep threats, USC featured a shorter passing game last season. The Gamecocks averaged 12.0 yards per completion in 2007 compared to 13.4 yards in 2006, a 10.4 percent reduction.

McKinley, who's not expected to participate much in spring practice in order to protect the toe, established a school single season record with 77 receptions in 2007, and now stands just 16 behind Sterling Sharpe (169) for the all-time career mark.

McKinley's decision to return to USC for his senior year rather than declare for the NFL Draft elated Spurrier.

"I'm really proud of Kenny," Spurrier said. "He had a little spur on his toe. He's probably not going to do much during the spring. But he doesn't need to anyway. Spring practice is more for the young guys that haven't played much and for the guys competing for starting jobs."

McKinley had 36 catches, nearly one-half his total, in the final four games, including a career-high 14 receptions against Tennessee.

When the regular season ended, McKinley led the SEC in receptions, average receptions per game (6.42) and receiving yards per game (80.7), and earned First-Team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches.

Spurrier spent most of the first half of last season looking for a complementary receiver for McKinley. Finally, he discovered Lecorn, who ended up with 27 receptions, two more than McKinley had as a freshman in 2005, after not grabbing a pass in the first four games.

But a misdemeanor charge - simple possession of marijuana - has clouded Lecorn's short-term future with the Gamecocks. Hopefully, his legal situation will be resolved soon and he'll be able to participate in spring practice.

Freddie Brown had 17 receptions as a sophomore in 2008, giving him 31 for his career. Brown has developed into a reliable third receiver with medium-range receptions.

Moe Brown struggled last season until the final three games when he collected eight of his 13 receptions. Brown has 22 career catches. Both Browns will have to step up in the spring to protect their spots.

Freeman arrived at USC last spring with a lot of fanfare but faded into the background once fall practice opened. He finished with two receptions for 30 yards. It will be a battle for him to remain on the depth chart.

Culliver didn't have a reception last season but averaged 23.8 yards for 34 kickoff returns as the USC coaching staff sought to take advantage of his blazing speed. He nearly went the distance on a couple of returns.

Once Culliver learns the plays, he has the talent to become an All-SEC quality receiver.

"We'll find out if he can play this spring," Spurrier said. "He hasn't demonstrated much yet. But he can run fast. He's one of our fastest guys in the 40 in the winter workouts."

Both Jason Barnes and Mark Barnes were expected to make immediate impacts at wide receiver last season, but it didn't happen.

Both players initially struggled to grasp Spurrier's complex system before injuries derailed their seasons. Both will be redshirt freshmen in 2008 by virtue of receiving medical hardships.

Jason Barnes made his only reception against S.C. State and started the next week against LSU, but didn't play the rest of the season. Mark Barnes had two receptions against S.C. State.

Hills, a lanky 6-foor-4 receiver from Palmetto, Fla., stepped on the field briefly last season but didn't register a catch. His progress was slowed when he suffered a serious knee injury on the first day of fall camp. It took weeks until he was ready to return to practice.

Spurrier believes Hills is one of USC's most talented young receivers and is looking for him to step up and earn playing time this season.

Matt Clements of Naples, Fla. redshirted this past season, but was involved with Lecorn in the events leading to the latter's arrest. He's been indefinitely suspended as well.

Whitlock, who enrolled at USC in January along with six other newcomers, has been told he'll get an opportunity to earn a spot at wide receiver this spring.

Last season at Chester (S.C.) High School, Whitlock caught 23 passes for 418 yards for an impressive average of 18.2 yards per reception, rushed 77 times for 266 yards with five TD's and, while playing quarterback, managed to complete 63.7 percent (58 of 91) of his passes for 864 yards and 11 touchdowns with just three interceptions.

"They've talked to me about cornerback, receiver and using me on special teams as a return man," Whitlock said. "It doesn't matter too much to me as long as I'm on the field. I'll help out wherever they need me."

Where does USC need Whitlock's help the most? It could be at wide receiver. We'll find out this spring.

Jason Barnes
Mark Barnes
Moe Brown
Freddie Brown
Matt Clements*
Chris Culliver
Larry Freeman
Joseph Hills
Dion Lecorn*
Kenny McKinley
Charles Whitlock

* Indefinitely Suspended

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