COLUMBIA – South Carolina is scheduled to begin spring football practice on Tuesday, weather permitting. Ten questions facing the Gamecocks entering Steve Spurrier’s ninth spring as coach:
1. Which players won’t participate in spring practice? Start with quarterback Connor Shaw. He should be recovered enough from his foot surgery to throw on the sidelines, but that’s about it. Cornerback Ahmad Christian is playing baseball and suffered a stress fracture in his lower back. Running back Shon Carson’s availability is questionable because of baseball, as well.
Linebacker Cedrick Cooper is sidelined with a knee injury sustained during bowl practice. In addition to Christian, two other defensive backs will be sidelined: Rico McWilliams (knee injury in August) and T.J. Gurley (knee injury in October), leaving a shortage at that position.
2. How much will Jadeveon Clowney participate in spring practice? Even with new defensive line coach Deke Adams, Clowney isn’t expected to participate much in the contact drills. He’ll work the individual drills during the first half of most workouts, but take a seat after that. The April 13 spring game? Don’t look for Clowney to play more than one series. Protecting the most dominant defensive player in college football for the real games when they begin on Aug. 29 is paramount.
Senior defensive end Chaz Sutton is probably in the same boat. Expect to see plenty of Darius English, Gerald Dixon and Deon Green.
3. What are the most intriguing position battles? Spring always features several battles for starting job and this year is no different. The top six right now are 1) Running back; 2) Top “tall” receiver; 3) Center; 4) Defensive tackle; 5) Spur and 6) Place-kicker. Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds will compete for the No. 1 running back spot. It’s too close to call right now, although Davis was listed as the starter on the depth chart. Shaq Roland, K.J. Brent, Shamier Jeffery, Kwinton Smith and Jody Fuller will compete to earn the title of USC’s best “tall receiver.”
Redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop has the edge at center, and is expected to become T.J. Johnson’s successor at center, but he faces competition from Will Sport and Clayton Stadnik. Byron Jerideau’s departure means the starting defensive tackle job next to Kelcy Quarles is wide-open. The candidates include Gerald Dixon Jr., Phillip Dukes and J.T. Surratt. Jordan Diggs and Sharrod Golightly will mount a ferocious battle at spur. Landon Ard and Nick St. Germain will try to out-kick the other in the spring.
4. Which players will be under the spotlight? Sophomore wide receiver Shaq Roland was the crown jewel of USC’s 2012 signing class, and expectations were sky-high when he enrolled in school in August. But he finished with just five receptions for 80 yards and one touchdown. Coaches and fans are eager to see how Roland responds to a flimsy debut.
Another wide receiver being eyed for a larger role in 2013 is Damiere Byrd. Was his long touchdown catch in the Outback Bowl a preview of coming attractions? However, he is also running track. Davis is expected to take the next step, as well, at running back. Will he? The competition with Wilds should bring out the best in both players.
Linebacker Kaiwan Lewis is the new man in the middle for the USC defense. He’ll compete with T.J. Holloman, but should win the job. Is Waldrop the heir apparent to Johnson? We’ll begin to find out in the spring.
5. Is this Dylan Thompson’s opportunity to close the gap on Shaw? Perhaps. But quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus views the spring as more of an opportunity for Thompson to improve in a number of areas. The message from Spurrier has been clear – Shaw and Thompson will both play in 2013. Actually, as far as the quarterback spot is concerned, the spring is more about developing young signal-callers Brendan Nosovitch and Connor Mitch.
6. Who is playing outside (weakside) linebacker? Good question. The departures of Quin Smith and Damario Jeffery, together with Cedrick Cooper’s knee injury, has left a huge void at the spot. Say hello to Marcquis Roberts and Kelvin Rainey, the unfamiliar duo that will try to fill the gap. Neither has played a snap for USC. Roberts, a redshirt sophomore, has already suffered two knee injuries, while Rainey spent last season as a tight end before shifting to linebacker at his own request. But defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward plans to move a lot of people around, so don’t be surprised if Lewis or Holloman see action at outside linebacker as well.
7. Why is USC practicing twice this week, taking spring break and then resuming workouts on March 19? Another good question. A week ago, Spurrier said he wanted to spread out the workouts rather than simply bunch them up, had they waited until March 18 or March 19 to get going. Right now, USC is scheduled to work out on Tuesday and Thursday and then resume workouts on March 19. After that, the practice schedule is hectic with four workouts in five days (March 19, 21-23). The first scrimmage is set for March 23. There is no scrimmage set for Easter weekend (March 30-31).
8. What should we expect from the first two workouts? Not much. Because of the arcane NCAA rules regulating spring practice, players are not allowed to wear shoulder pads during the first two workouts (commonly known as the “acclimation period”), so there is very little hitting. Typically, these practices are conducted in helmets, shirts and shorts, and consist mostly of individual and group drills focusing on basic fundamentals. Not exactly the most exciting stuff.
9. Will the spring game be televised? The April 13 Garnet and Black spring game at Williams-Brice Stadium is scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff. Admission is free. The contest will be televised by ESPN3 and later will be shown by ESPNU on a delayed basis. All spring practices are open to the public with most workouts beginning at 4:15 p.m. The three scrimmages (including the spring game) allowed by the NCAA will take place at Williams Brice Stadium. Pro Timing Day on March 27 is also open to the public, starting at 10 a.m.
10. Will Bruce Ellington participate in spring practice? Basketball season for USC could be over as early as March 13, the date when first-round games of the SEC tournament are played in Nashville. The third spring practice is scheduled for March 19. Will Ellington participate in that workout? Maybe. But Spurrier could allow USC’s top returning receiver to take a break before he steps onto the Proving Grounds and takes part in drills. Ellington doesn’t have to prove himself to the USC offensive coaches, so he could step aside to allow the younger receivers to benefit from as many reps as possible.