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May 13, 2014

Spring Wrap-up: South Carolina

Editor's note: This is the eleventh installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Columbia, S.C. | If six SEC championships and a national title during his time at Florida was not enough to cement Steve Spurrier's legacy as one of the best coaches in college football history, perhaps what he has done at South Carolina will be.

It seems almost ridiculous to say that, given that Spurrier's nine seasons in the Palmetto State have yet to produce a championship for the Gamecocks save for an SEC East divisional crown in 2010. Yet, for a program that was seen for many years as mediocre or worse (excepting a few bright spots), the turnaround led by the Head Ball Coach in Columbia is remarkable. Just a few of the many accomplishments under Spurrier lately: The aforementioned divisional crown was the first in the program's history. 33 wins and just six losses over the past three seasons, good enough for the second-best winning percentage out of SEC teams during that span. A top four-finish after the 2013 campaign, also the best in school history. Three straight bowl victories. An 18 game home winning streak at Williams-Brice Stadium. And perhaps the most gleeful of all for USC fans: a five-game winning streak over rival Clemson.

The 2013 season was another 11-win campaign for USC, punctuated by that fifth straight win at home over Clemson in Connor Shaw's final home contest. It featured a comeback win against then-number-four Missouri on the road, and a bowl win against Wisconsin on New Year's Day. The program received plenty of national exposure with the strong season plus one of the country's most recognizable players in Jadeveon Clowney.

For all that consistency, it's been the moments of inconsistency that has stood in the way of South Carolina capturing another chance to play in Atlanta that has seemed so elusive. In 2011, it was a home loss to Auburn in a game that South Carolina had no business losing that was the undoing. The following season, the Gamecocks were tasked with back to back roadies at LSU and Florida and dropped both. In 2013, it was an almost unfathomable loss to Tennessee that was ultimately the difference.

The landscape has changed quite a bit for USC since Spurrier's arrival, as now each season now brings high expectations. The fact that seemingly every publication that has come out with a way-too-early preseason top 25 has USC as a top 15 (or higher) team is telling on that front. The upcoming 2014 season will feature many familiar faces, but plenty of star power must be replaced. Whether or not South Carolina can fill in the blanks of this team's questions , and eliminate the fleeting moments of inconsistency, will make a break the squad's chances to do something special.


Who will replace the playmakers?

As Spurrier pointed out after USC's annual Garnet and Black Game, the Gamecocks return plenty of upperclassmen, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. This will be a team with several more seniors than last year's squad. Yet, the senior losses from the 2013 team are significant, and when paired with the early draft entrants creates some legitimate questions.

The conversation has to start with Shaw, USC's all-time winningest quarterback and a guy that won the vast majority of the games he started for the Gamecocks. His toughness and playmaking ability won't be easy to replace, although USC has the luxury of a fifth-year senior in Dylan Thompson taking the reins. Thompson is a different kind of player, but one that is an excellent leader and a good player in his own right. It seems ludicrous to expect USC to duplicate a one-interception season again at quarterback, but Thompson's trigger of the offense will be a big key for USC this season.

The defense will be without several pieces in 2014. Losing Clowney means that teams no longer have to scheme completely to cater to his freakish athletic abilities. Fellow starter Chaz Sutton is also gone. Early NFL departure Kelcy Quarles had an All-American season at defensive tackle. Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree represent a ton of snaps at cornerback for the Gamecocks, and both were starters last season in a group that will be very low on experience in 2014. To cope, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward will do some things differently scheme-wise on defense this season to generate pressure and the Gamecocks will be counting on true freshmen (and the guys already on campus to continue improving) at the cornerback spot.

Bruce Ellington also entered the draft, and although wide receiver is a stronger position for the Gamecocks, Ellington made so many tough and clutch catches during his career that it will be difficult for anyone to replicate what he brought to the field. Sophomore< B>Pharoh Cooper, a potential rising star in the conference, will step into that role and will also be an important factor on special teams and at wildcat quarterback. The lone departure from the offensive line is senior right guard Ronald Patrick.

Different look defense

Ward knew that he would be facing several losses from his 2013 defense, and one was one of college football's most schemed-against players in Clowney. Without the experience at defensive end (and losing Quarles) up front to generate pressure, Ward needed to find a way to give offenses some new looks.

Enter the 3-4.

While USC's base defense is still the 4-2-5 and the 3-4 scheme that USC will run at times is not your typical three-man front (it's still based on 4-2-5 principles), Ward will utilize a new "BOB" linebacker hybrid position and do some creative blitzing to help USC in the run and passing game.

Defensive tackle and linebacker have depth and experience. Safety looks pretty strong with< B>Brison Williams (who could play some corner), Chaz Elder, T.J. Gurley, and Kadetrix Marcus. USC will need< B>Gerald Dixon to play well again as he did later last year. Darius English has put on plenty of weight, up around 250 now and will be counted on at end. The Gamecocks will be counting on JUCO transfer Jhaustin Thomas (and potentially some freshmen) to help out at end and a few prospects out of a five-member DB class could see playing time as true freshmen at corner as well.

Defense has been a strong suit for Carolina in recent seasons, and this team will be counting on some players to grow up in a hurry to continue that in 2014.

Can the linebackers take a big step forward?

How odd it is that the biggest question mark from 2013 on defense is now considered a strength going into the next season. The Gamecocks' group of linebackers was void of experience, but not talent, in 2013 and it showed in the early going against Georgia and others. However, Kirk Botkin's group improved with time and now there is plenty of depth to go along with the ability. South Carolina has several players that can be counted on at the MIKE, WILL, and SPUR positions. Some of those players will be counted on to help at the BOB spot, but in general this is a group that (along with defensive tackle) is now among the group that is being marked to be the veterans of the unit.

Skai Moore garnered honors as a true freshman for his play, and< B>Sharrod Golightly was an All-SEC selection at SPUR. Jonathan Walton has always had ability and his move to WILL linebacker looks to be one that has him ready to see more time there. T.J. Holloman was cited by Ward at one point as the spring's best MIKE linebacker, but the Gamecocks also have Kaiwan Lewis and< B>Marcquis Roberts ready to go there. Jordan Diggs seemed to make a move during the spring, and Larenz Bryant also has plenty of talent at SPUR. If Ward and Botkin can squeeze even more production out of group that's expected to be better in 2014, it could help mask some of the other need areas, particularly early.

Can the offense be dominant?

USC's offense has steadily improved under Spurrier in recent seasons; could the 2014 version be the best? The offensive line looks poised to be the best that the Head Ball Coach has had. All starters, save for Patrick, are back. Line coach Shawn Elliott hoped to build a group that has played plenty of snaps together and has that. New right guard< B>Mike Matulis, now healthy and moved over from tackle, could be an even better option there.

The Gamecock line is big and has some athleticism. With a strong stable of running backs behind them, the run game should be fairly strong again. Mike Davis is one of the best backs in the SEC, but Brandon Wilds is also proven and the Gamecocks have Shon Carson and promising redshirt freshman David Williams too.

The biggest question will be whether or not the group can give Thompson plenty of protection to help keep him healthy and hit some of the deep balls that Spurrier will want to trigger with the senior at the helm and no Shaw running around to extend plays as much. Thompson's health will be key, as will the offense's taking care of the football by limiting turnovers.

As mentioned, the wide receivers will be without Ellington but Shaq Roland could be poised for his best season. Cooper, Nick Jones, Damiere Byrd, and others also return. The tight ends in Busta Anderson and Jerell Adams are also very capable pass-catchers.

This offense is one that may, at least early, need to be called upon to save the day for the Gamecocks and with some strong defensive teams on the schedule, is one that Spurrier needs to produce consistently.

Can South Carolina be a SEC title contender in 2014?

The easy line to throw out there is that whatever team wins the September match-up between the Gamecocks and Georgia Bulldogs could take the Eastern division and head to Atlanta. That's also not necessarily true, as recent history tells us. The Gamecocks defeated Georgia in 2011 and 2012, yet didn't make it to the Georgia Dome due to the stumbles mentioned earlier. South Carolina also had a chance to make it last season despite losing early to the Dawgs. It's still a pivotal game, no doubt and one that will greatly increase USC's chances if the Gamecocks can win it at home.

Still, USC will have to take care of business week in and week out and Florida could have a say in the East title race this year. Tennessee also reminds USC not to forget about the Vols, and history also reminds not to forget about Vanderbilt and Kentucky in a spoiler role to the Gamecocks.

The short answer is that yes, USC can be a title contender and is expected to be firmly in the mix. Several things must happen in order for that to happen, though. First of all, the Gamecocks have to stay healthy at key positions, particularly at quarterback, in the secondary, and along the offensive line. The Gamecocks cannot afford a stumble in a game against a lesser opponent as has happened in the past if the team is fortunate enough to beat some of the heavier-hitters on the schedule. The offense may need to carry the defense at times particularly in the earlier going and South Carolina will need to get production at defensive end and cornerback, the top areas of concern, on that side of the ball.

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