March 20, 2008

10 Things We Know Right Now

Spring practice always brings optimism for any college football program. Rather than look back to the past season, it presents the first opportunity to truly look forward to the upcoming season.

The same is true for South Carolina, which starts spring drills on Friday afternoon. Heading into the opening session, there are some things we don't know about the Gamecocks. But there are 10 things we do know. Here they are:

1. SEVERAL STAR PLAYERS WILL SIT OUT: Three of USC's best players don't expect to participate much in spring practice. Linebacker Jasper Brinkley (torn knee ligaments), wide receiver Kenny McKinley (bone spur on his toe) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (micro-fracture in foot) are recovering from injuries and will likely stand on the sidelines and watch USC's younger, less established players go at it.

Steve Spurrier has a philosophy that spring practice is mostly for developing players who haven't seen the field much. He's certainly not going to risk further injury to three of his best players.

2. THE PLAYERS' ATTITUDES ARE IMPROVING: Spurrier has opened each of the first two Gamecock Club meetings by proudly proclaiming that the first winter conditioning workout at 6 a.m. on Jan. 14 had 100 percent attendance. He also said winter workouts have been the best since he's been here. Clearly, the players have put last season's collapse behind them and are ready to move on.

But the willingness to work hard during the off-season is also proof that the team attitude is finally turning the corner, and setting to where it needs to be if USC wants to compete in the hyper-competitive SEC.

"Our guys are committed," Spurrier said. "We have a little bit better commitment level than we've had in the past. We have to get better. We're fired up and ready to go."

3. MOST POSITIONS ON OFFENSE ARE UNSETTLED: When it comes to the Gamecock offense, the only thing we know right now is McKinley will be the top wide receiver when fall camp opens in late July. And rightfully so, since he will likely become USC's all-time leader in career receptions before the conclusion of the 2008 season.

But, beyond McKinley, everything else is up in the air. Unlike the last two springs, no one knows who the starting quarterback will be. Mike Davis is, by far, the most experienced running back, but he'll have to battle Brian Maddox and Eric Baker for the starting job.

At wide receiver, Dion Lecorn, last season's No. 2 receiver, is still indefinitely suspended while the misdemeanor charge of simple possession of marijuana meanders its way through the court system.

But the most unsettled position might be the offensive line, where all five positions are up for grabs after a tumultuous 2007 campaign that saw the group perform below expectations.

4. SPURRIER LOVES HIS NEW COACHING HIRES: New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski have already made a positive impression upon Spurrier in their first two months on the job. Spurrier fully expects both units will be vastly improved in 2008.

Johnson, the former head coach at The Citadel, and Rychleski have plenty of experience coaching college football. Johnson has been a defensive coordinator in the SEC for nearly a decade at Alabama and Mississippi State, while Rychleski served under Ralph Friedgen at Maryland for seven years following a stint of the same length at Wake Forest.

"Ellis Johnson is a sharp guy. He's a proven defensive coordinator," Spurrier said. "Looking back, I should have hired him four years ago. He's going to help us be fundamentally sound. When it's third-and-21, (the fans) won't have to sit there and wonder how (the opposing team) is going to make this one. That's the attitude we've had. We've played some good defense at times, but at crucial times we haven't been very good."

Rychleski established a reputation throughout the ACC as a special team guru. Maryland didn't have a single punt blocked during his seven years with the Terrapins.

"I think he's a really good coach," Spurrier said. "He's a real ball coach. I like this guy. Hopefully, we'll coach better and the players will play better."
5. THE QB BATTLE WILL BE HEATED: There's no question the three-way quarterback duel between Chris Smelley, Stephen Garcia and Tommy Beecher will be the most heavily watched positional battle this spring. Spurrier and quarterbacks coach David Reaves will let the trio go at it and, hopefully, one will emerge by the end of the spring as the obvious leader.

Smelley completed 56.8 percent of his passes (92 of 162) for 1,176 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He averaged 168.0 yards passing per game and finished with an efficiency rating of 127.46.

"We're going to let them battle it out," Spurrier said. "Chris Smelley played pretty well off and on last year. But we have not performed at a level I'm used to. We're still playing catchup. We expect more from our players. Stephen Garcia can run with the ball. That's the new wave. A quarterback that can run the ball gives the defense a lot of problems."

While some USC fans are unquestionably rooting for the charismatic Garcia to win the job, Smelley won't concede anything. He reacted angrily when Spurrier announced last season prior to the Vanderbilt game that he would rotate Smelley and former starter Blake Mitchell in the Vanderbilt game. Smelley didn't see the field again after that defeat, so don't be surprised if he shows up for the first workout with the gloves already on.

6. THE DEFENSE MUST START STOPPING THE RUN: Make no mistake, the USC defense was gashed by the run last season, particularly in late season nationally televised contests against Arkansas and Florida when all of their weaknesses were exposed to the nation. As a direct product of those games, USC finished last in the SEC in rushing defense.

But the failure to stop the run was a season-long problem. Even Louisiana-Lafayette generated 252 yards on the ground in the season opener. USC improved slightly, but the season-ending injury to Jasper Brinkley finally caught up with the Gamecocks later in the season.

Defensive line coach Brad Lawing's self-proclaimed mission this spring is to find 10 players with the toughness and fortitude to stand their ground and stop the run, while also generating an effective pass rush.

7. THERE WILL BE A NEW STARTING LEFT TACKLE FOR THE FIRST TWO GAMES: When Jamon Meredith stepped onto the field for the final few plays of USC's lopsided victory over Vanderbilt in the 2004 season opener, little did he know the consequences would extend into the 2008 season.

Meredith did not play again in 2004, and assumed Lou Holtz's coaching staff would file the necessary paperwork. But it didn't happen. In 2006, Meredith filed for a waiver from the NCAA requesting a medical hardship for the 2004 season. The request was granted on the condition Meredith had to sit out the first two games of the 2008 season.

While Meredith will participate in spring practice, the battle for the right to start those first two games will begin Friday between Hutch Eckerson and Quintin Richardson.

8. THE FIRST TEAM OFFENSE WILL KNOCK HEADS WITH THE FIRST TEAM DEFENSE MORE: Taking a cue from Ray Rychleski, Spurrier plans to have the first team offense knock heads with the first team defense more often this spring. He believes it will make the Gamecocks tougher.

"Ray Rychleski talks about going best against best in special teams," Spurrier said. "Hopefully, we can teach our guys to compete at a little higher level. I'm not blaming our guys. We haven't been the most talented team the last three years. We're going to try some different things. We're trying to go in a new direction with Carolina football."

9. THE TEAM SPEED IS GETTING BETTER: All you need to do is glance at the unofficial 40 times to see that USC's team speed will be better this season across the board. They'll need it to compete against lightning fast teams like Florida and Georgia. Look for players like Chris Culliver, Alonzo Winfield and Charles Whitlock to get every opportunity to earn starting spots.

"Culliver can run fast. He was one of our fastest guys in the 40 during the winter," Spurrier said. "This is going to be one of the fastest and strongest teams we've ever had at South Carolina. That's because of our conditioning. Mark Smith and his guys are the best in the country. But we have to carry it over to the games."

10. THE FIRST THREE GAMES WILL SET THE TONE: Few teams in the country face a more difficult opening stretch than the Gamecocks. They open up with N.C. State on Aug. 28 at Williams-Brice Stadium, then follow up that Thursday night appearance on ESPN with another one: at Vanderbilt on Sept. 4. If that wasn't enough, the Gamecocks return home to face Georgia, which should be ranked in the Top 5 of most of the major polls.

If USC finds a way to start 3-0, it could be off to the races. After that, USC gets somewhat of a breather with home games against Wofford and UAB. But, the Terriers were hardly pushovers in 2006, and actually had a chance to win the game in the closing moments before a deflected pass was intercepted to quash the threat.

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