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July 5, 2008
THE SCHEME: South Carolina usually lines up in a single-back formation with three wide receivers. Though he has a reputation as a pass-first coach, Steve Spurrier has had the most success with a balanced offense.
STAR POWER: Senior Kenny McKinley started his career in the shadow of Sidney Rice, but he has carved a nice career out for himself. McKinley caught an SEC-leading 77 passes last season for 968 yards and nine touchdowns. He could leave South Carolina as the school record-holder for several receiving marks.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: One of three signees from Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, Eric Baker will be one of the running backs putting pressure on veteran Mike Davis. As a senior at Jacksonville (Fla.) Ed White, Baker led the state with 1,703 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.
IT'S HIS TIME: Leading rusher and team leader Cory Boyd is gone, leaving the position to Davis - a senior who has rushed for 1,658 yards and started 14 games over the past three seasons. But he's under pressure to perform after the Gamecocks averaged an SEC-worst 113.7 rushing yards per game last season. Davis hasn't always been in the coaching staff's good graces, and he has plenty of other backs looking to take his spot.
STRONGEST AREA: South Carolina could give defenses fits with a two-tight end set. The Gamecocks have the personnel to do so with junior Jared Cook and sophomore Weslye Saunders. Even with veteran Andy Boyd on the roster last season, Cook and Saunders combined for 42 catches for 602 yards. Cook had three touchdown receptions.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: As always, Spurrier's quarterbacks will be under the microscope. The erratic Blake Mitchell is gone, leaving no clear-cut starter. Sophomore Chris Smelley, who went 4-2 as a starter last year, is the most experienced. Smelley and junior Tommy Beecher will continue to compete into the fall. The question looming throughout camp will be the handling of redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia. He is suspended until Aug. 15 after three arrests in 15 months. He looks to have the most talent of any quarterback on the roster, but can Spurrier count on him?
OVERVIEW: Spurrier has his work cut out for him beyond the quarterback spot. The line should be improved after the Gamecocks struggled to run the football and allowed the second-most sacks in the SEC. Tackles Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorensen return, joined in the starting lineup by three others who started at times last season. Indeed, seven linemen who started at least one game last season return this season. Even with McKinley and the two tight ends, South Carolina would like to find more options at wide receiver, starting with sophomore Dion Lecorn.
THE SCHEME: New coordinator Ellis Johnson brings a 4-3 defense to South Carolina. He has several quality edge rushers at his disposal.
STAR POWER: Jasper Brinkley was en route to possibly becoming the best linebacker in the SEC before suffering a season-ending knee injury after four games last season. When healthy, Brinkley is a tackling machine. In 2006, he had 107 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks. South Carolina needs him to reclaim that form to improve the SEC's worst run defense.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Another addition from Fork Union, Akeem Auguste is competing with Carlos Thomas at a cornerback spot. If Auguste doesn't win the starting job, he still could see time in the nickel package.
IT'S HIS TIME: Senior tackle Marque Hall got off to a good start as a key backup as a true freshman and sophomore. He hasn't been quite as effective since returning from a 2006 knee injury, though. Hall could start alongside sophomore Ladi Ajiboye in the interior, but whether he starts or is a backup, the Gamecocks need Hall to be a factor. He is even more important now that backup Kenrick Ellis has been dismissed from the team.
STRONGEST AREA: South Carolina finished fourth in the nation in pass defense at 168.8 yards per game. Part of the reason is because it was so easy to run the ball on the Gamecocks. The other reason is that South Carolina has good talent in the secondary. Captain Munnerlyn can be a lockdown corner, Emanuel Cook is a hard-hitting strong safety who had three picks and two forced fumbles in 2007 and Darian Stewart is a returning starter at free safety. Cook and Munnerlyn are legit all-league candidates.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: South Carolina allowed a combined 487 rushing yards to Darren McFadden and Felix Jones last season. The run defense should improve with the return of Brinkley and tackle Nathan Pepper, who blew out his knee early last season. Still, the Gamecocks need more than just marginal improvement against the run if they're too seriously challenge for the SEC East title. Coaches hope moving some players around will toughen the run defense.
OVERVIEW: No unit in the SEC has a higher ceiling for improvement than South Carolina's defense. The Gamecocks should have an all-conference (or better) linebacker in Brinkley. Pepper and endJordin Lindsey, who sat out because of academics last season, are back in the mix. Lindsey's return and the emergence of sophomore Cliff Matthews allowed South Carolina to move undersized end Eric Norwood (19.5 tackles for loss last year) to outside linebacker, where his big-play capabilities should come to the fore more often. Matthews, meanwhile, went from linebacker to end. An example of what the added talent should mean: Senior Marvin Sapp started eight games at middle linebacker last season but is listed as the third-teamer headed into fall camp.
Ryan Succop has kicked 29 field goals and averaged 42.3 yards per punt over the past two years, but his days as a combo kicker/punter could be over. The Gamecocks don't want him to handle all the kicking duties, and sophomore Spencer Lanning could take over at punter. Both return men are back – Munnerlyn on punts (9.2 yards per return) and Chris Culliver (23.8 yards) on kickoffs. New special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski must improve a unit that had punts blocked in the last two games. Maryland didn't allow a blocked punt in seven seasons under Rychleski.
Spurrier did the unthinkable during the offseason by delegating the play-calling duties, a role he has held throughout his head-coaching career. Steve Spurrier Jr., will call the plays, but the elder Spurrier says he still will have some input. On defense, South Carolina twice needed to hire a defensive coordinator. Brian Van Gorder took the job, then returned to the NFL after a month. Spurrier then plucked Ellis Johnson from Arkansas – where he had been coordinator for a month. Johnson has been a coordinator at Clemson, Alabama and Mississippi State, where he served from 2004-07. One assistant to watch this season is John Hunt, who needs to shape up his offensive line.
South Carolina has a schedule that lends itself to a rebound season, even in the SEC East. Except for Florida, all of South Carolina's toughest conference games are in Columbia. The other three SEC road opponents are Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Kentucky. The back half of the schedule is much more daunting than the first half, with back-to-back road trips to Gainesville and Clemson to end the season.
Spurrier's arrival brought visions of SEC championships to Columbia, but those hopes have been tempered after the Gamecocks missed a bowl game in 2007. South Carolina should return to a bowl this season. Whether the Gamecocks are in SEC East contention depends on the health of the defense and – above all else – the emergence of a competent quarterback.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.