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August 9, 2011

Blog: 10 things we've learned (Part 2)



Six practices are in the books, meaning more than 20 percent of preseason camp is now in the rearview mirror. We've compiled a list of 10 things we've learned since the players first walked onto The Proving Grounds for the first time. We've already posted Nos. 1-5. Here are Nos. 6-10.

6. Bruce Ellington really wanted to play football: Bruce Ellington was a great football player at Berkeley High School. But he often said basketball was his first love, and that's why he chose to play for Darrin Horn rather than Steve Spurrier as a freshman. But the football itch kicked in last winter and he soon approached Horn and told him of his yearning to give football a try in addition to playing hoops.

Once his aspiration went green, Ellington dove head-first into his new gig. He spent the summer working out, attending classes and learning the playbook. The result? Ellington might have been the best prepared first-year Spurrier has ever seen. Together with his obvious physical talents, you have the ingredients for instant success. Don't be surprised if Ellington becomes a star this season.

"He hasn't played in one year but Bruce has played football his whole life," Spurrier said. "He's a natural. He's got hands, quick feet, and, like his mother said, 'I can tell he was happy because he studied his playbook all summer.' He has studied his playbook. I don't know many first-year guys who can come in and pretty much know the offense. Bruce is a very smart young man as we've learned in the last four or five days. He really wants to be good. He has a commitment level that will be contagious to a lot of our players and be very helpful."

7. The freshmen running backs are better than expected: In a recent practice, freshman running back Shon Carson took a handoff, ran right and turned the corner. That's when he turned on the jets and exploded up the field. In that instant, Carson became a contender for playing time this season at running back. And don't forget about Brandon Wilds, who was recently described by position coach Jay Graham as possessing better speed than the coaches thought when they signed the Blythewood native. Because the pair of freshmen have been better than expected, a battle royale for the No. 2 running back job behind Marcus Lattimore could develop.

"As we go through these scrimmages, I want to see how much he (Carson) can handle mentally," Graham said. "He's certainly talented enough athletically and strong enough to do so. But it's a competition. We have Eric Baker, Kenny Miles. We have a pretty good stable of running backs. Everybody has been doing very well. We have four guys working hard to step in as the number-two running back."

8. Depth won't be an issue in the trenches: If you've closely followed the drama of the offensive line over the last four years, you know that one of the unit's perennial weaknesses has been a lack of depth. But it appears that it is changing. This year, most of the backups are inexperienced, but they're players the coaching staff has shown confidence in. Consider these recent words from O-line coach Shawn Elliott:

"Depth is something they haven't had around here in a long time. We've finally got it and we're building on that. We're recruiting now. It's still a work in progress. But it is nice to have some numbers."

The depth along the defensive line is extraordinary, one reason many analysts contend USC might have the top defensive line in the SEC, and one of the best in the country. USC was already returning stars like Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson, and now they've added Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Phillip Dukes to the equation. Does Brad Lawing even sleep at night because he's so excited to watch these guys play? I wouldn't blame him.

9. Hell has frozen over: Stephen Garcia first arrived on the USC campus in January 2007. As bizarre as it sounds, Garcia hasn't, by his own admission, developed a strong working relationship with Spurrier over the last 4 1-2 years. Something about those five suspensions, and a dose of immaturity. But things appear to be changing. Since being fully reinstated, Garcia has made developing a better relationship with Spurrier a top priority, even calling it "pretty vital" for a successful 2011 season. For his part, Spurrier is now saying nice things about Garcia:

"We were watching tape the other day - he hit about the fourth choice on a pass play when the first three were all covered up. The fourth one, he immediately went to it," Spurrier said. "I said, 'Now that's playing quarterback.' Maybe he's learning and the fifth year will be his best, we hope."

10. The first letter in the last name of USC's best all-around player isn't L or J: So, you think USC's best all-around player is either running back Marcus Lattimore or wide receiver Alshon Jeffery? Good choices. But you also might be wrong. Instead, look to the defense. Specifically, the defensive backfield. D.J. Swearinger has enjoyed a sensational camp so far (the product of an outstanding summer) and has emerged as one of the group's fearless leaders despite the fact that he has made the switch from free safety to strong safety.

Besides playing defense, Swearinger will also serve as USC's top kickoff returner. Special teams coach John Butler pointed to Swearinger's toughness as a key reason for his decision to make him the top guy when it comes to kickoffs.

Swearinger was a workout warrior during the summer and won the team's "Gladiator" competition, which was designed primarily to identify the toughest player on the team. Few were surprised when Swearinger emerged as the class of the field and took home the title. Look for Swearinger to make tackles all over the field from his strong safety spot this season. He could very well lead the Gamecocks in tackles in 2011.

"My role this year compared to the last two years has changed tremendously," Swearinger said at Media Day. "I'm coming into this year as one of the leaders in the secondary and one of the leaders of the entire defense. I'm just trying to lead by example and make the plays I need to be making this year."

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore expects Swearinger to have a monster year at strong safety in 2011 -- "The whole summer, we've just been working hard together. D.J. got stronger, faster and I think he'll be the quarterback of our defense. He can see the whole defense. I think D.J. will have a big year. I think it's built for him to have a big year."

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