COLUMBIA – Which SEC East team has won the most games in the past three years? South Carolina. The Gamecocks are 31-9, 17-7 in conference clashes, to give it three more wins than Georgia (28-13) and five more than Florida (26-13) during the same span.
With SEC Media Days just days away, the excitement level for Steve Spurrier’s ninth season at the helm is building. Ten themes for the upcoming season:
1. Joy over Jadeveon: The USC defense is much more than defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, of course, but tell that to the national media, which are expected to fawn over the nation’s top defensive player and projected top pick in next year’s NFL draft all season long. Everything begins on July 16 when Clowney makes the rounds at SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Ala.
Announcements for the National College Football Awards Association watch lists began Monday, and Clowney will adorn the list for every major defensive award, including the Bednarik (defensive player of the year), Nagurski (most outstanding defensive player), Maxwell (college player of the year), Lombardi (best college lineman) and Walter Camp (nation’s most outstanding player).
Above those, of course, is the most coveted individual award in sports – the Heisman Trophy. Many analysts feel that Clowney has a legitimate chance to become the first purely defensive player (no offense or special teams) to capture the Heisman. Clowney has two early opportunities to grab the momentum with nationally televised contests against North Carolina and Georgia. If USC prevails in both games — and Clowney dominates – the chatter will grow louder.
2. Does USC have one quarterback or two? ESPN ranked USC at the top of the preseason conference quarterback rankings for a reason – no other team in the league possesses a one-two punch like Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. Even Spurrier sounded excited when he talked about the duo this spring. So, even though Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, Aaron Murray of Georgia and A.J. McCarron of Alabama are recognized as the top individual quarterbacks in the SEC, USC has the advantage of superior depth.
Shaw is a proven signal-caller (a 17-3 record as a starter, 10-0 at home), while Thompson filled in nicely when needed last season due to injuries to Shaw. Spurrier has repeatedly said that Shaw is the starter and Thompson will play. Will things remain that way for the entire season? We’ll see.
3. Health of several young defensive players: Cedrick Cooper (OLB), Rico McWilliams (CB) and T.J. Gurley (FS) represent the future of the Gamecocks’ defense, but all three young stars-to-be missed spring practice as they rehabbed from severe knee injuries last season. However, the trio has looked impressive in summer workouts and should be ready to go in August. As long as they avoid the injury bug, all three players should be major contributors, with Cooper and Gurley eyeing starting roles.
4. Versatility of Bruce Ellington: Ellington’s final year of playing two sports at USC (he’s a senior in basketball and a redshirt junior in football) is nearly upon us. Ellington has been named to the watch list for the Paul Hornung Award, which honors the most versatile player in major college football. Ellington led USC in receiving yards last season (600), averaging 15 yards per catch. Both were team highs.
Most college football fans now recognize him as the guy that caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds of the Outback Bowl. Clowney will surely grab a lot of the attention, but between the gridiron and hardwood, this month could mark the beginning of the “Year of Bruce.”
5. Depth at cornerback: Barring injury, Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree are penciled in as the starters at cornerback. Behind them, though, is a conundrum. Ahmad Christian? Missed spring practice and suffered a back injury while playing baseball. McWilliams? Sidelined all of last season. Ronnie Martin? The junior-college transfer was limited in the spring by a hamstring problem. Hence, lots and lots of questions exist behind Hampton and Legree.
While Christian, Martin and McWilliams are expected to be ready for preseason camp, the door is open for true freshmen Pharoh Cooper and Ali Groves to earn opportunities for playing time, and they could indeed step onto the field if the players ahead of them on the depth chart don’t perform.
6. The great divide at running back: The key question surrounding sophomores Mike Davis (No. 8 on ESPN.com’s list of top SEC running backs) and Brandon Wilds isn’t who will start, because both ball carriers will get a significant number of carries this season (running backs coach Everette Sands described them as a “two-headed monster”). Instead, how the carries are distributed is the more captivating question. Sands prefers to have a solid No. 1 running back with a capable backup, and occasionally utilize No. 3. However, Davis and Wilds are so close entering preseason camp, a 45-45-10 split in which the carries are evenly divided is more realistic than the 60-30-10 division sought by Sands.
7. Top tight ends in SEC?: Without Ace Sanders, and a bunch of question marks dominating the depth chart, USC’s wide receiver corps is not highly rated coming into the season (rated No. 10 in SEC by ESPN.com). Tight end, though, is different. The exciting duo of Busta Anderson (22 career catches, eight touchdowns) and Jerell Adams gives the Gamecocks one of the top tight end tandems in the conference, if not the country. When you add the potential of Drew Owens into the mix, the potential is virtually limitless. Ellington should top USC in receptions and yardage, but don’t be surprised if Anderson or Adams finishes No. 2. USC fans have wondered for a long time when the tight end would finally become a valuable and vital weapon in the offense. It could happen this year.
8. Pressure on The ‘S’ Troop: Sanders’ mildly surprising decision to declare for the NFL draft squarely put the pressure on Roland, redshirt sophomore Shamier Jeffery and redshirt freshman Kwinton Smith to produce in 2013, particularly the first two players. Both Jeffery and Roland were highly touted prospects when they signed with USC in 2011 and 2012, respectively, but have done little so far.
Roland displayed flashes last season with five receptions for 80 yards and one touchdown, but most Gamecock fans, I’m sure, expected more. Jeffery, meanwhile, has proven little in two years. Both players made strides in the spring, standing out with their performances, and even Spurrier lauded Jeffery’s improved attitude and work ethic. Will it pay dividends in 2013?
9. Spurrier’s longevity in Columbia: Based on what I heard in conversations at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., about six weeks ago, the realization that Spurrier could coach USC for as long – or longer — than he did Florida is beginning to sink in among national analysts. Most predicted in 2005 that he would coach the Gamecocks for two or three years, then leave town for a “bigger and better” job, seemingly unaware that Spurrier planned to make Columbia his last coaching stop.
Since he is currently signed through the 2017 season and has exhibited few signs of decelerating, Spurrier clearly intends to stick around for a while, or as long as the program continues on the upswing. His next career milestones are his 75th win at USC (nine more wins) and his 125th SEC win (eight). By the time he leaves USC, Spurrier should enjoy a comfortable lead in the school’s all-time wins category, signifying that decades could pass before someone eclipses him.
10. Which true freshmen will contribute?: If most coaches had their way, every freshman would redshirt except in rare circumstances, no questions asked. However, the present reality (players now routinely leave for the NFL after three years) decrees that coaches throw true freshmen into the mix as soon as they step on campus. But the 2013 signing class is stocked with youngsters that could contribute quickly, including Larenz Bryant (inexperience at linebacker), Cooper (a lack of depth at cornerback), Kelsey Griffin (a highly regarded defensive tackle), Devin Washington (his maturity could put the defensive end on the field early) and David Williams (who is seeking to crack the top three at running back).
Of course, whether any true freshman contributes in his first year is determined mainly by his physical conditioning during the summer, work ethic and how quickly he learns the playbook. The aforementioned players have arrived on campus and done well in summer workouts, but the true test comes in early August when they put on the pads for the first time and are finally handed an opportunity to show what they know on the practice field. If they succeed, they could play.
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