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July 11, 2009
THE SCHEME: Coach Steve Spurrier's pro-style offense will feature elements of the spread in an attempt to bolster the running game. Sophomore QB Stephen Garcia is comfortable with the spread. New line coach Eric Wolford – one of five new assistants this season – has linemen taking wider splits.
STAR POWER: There is no proven star on this offense. Garcia could fill the void. He is the most talented quarterback Spurrier has had at South Carolina, but he has had numerous off-field issues. He was part of the quarterback rotation last season, when he threw for 832 yards and six touchdowns. He also threw eight interceptions. That number must be reduced. Garcia has a strong arm and is a nimble runner; he just has to show he can thrive as a fulltime starter. He also needs to stay out of trouble.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman RB Jarvis Giles – who enrolled early and went through spring ball – is a shifty runner who'll provide an injection of speed and explosiveness. A four-star prospect from Tampa, Fla., Giles rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns in the Gamecocks' spring game. He should give a boost to a running game in dire need of one. The Gamecocks averaged 94.1 rushing yards per game in '08.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Though a strong, physical runner, junior Brian Maddox has managed just 135 rushing yards in two seasons. But he was named the team's most improved back in the spring and finished workouts as the starting tailback. He and Giles could form an effective tandem.
STRONGEST AREA: Maddox and Giles form a nice one-two punch with contrasting styles at tailback. The Gamecocks have good depth, too, with sophomore Eric Baker and redshirt freshman Kenny Miles. The question: Will all these guys have room to run?
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Three starters return on the line. Is that a good thing? Last season, the Gamecocks were routinely beaten up front. They allowed a whopping 39 sacks and didn't have much of a running game. There are no doubts about C Garrett Anderson, but the rest of the line has to perform better. A couple of junior college transfers were brought in and could help, but Wolford – who was hired off Illinois' staff – is facing a tough task.
THE SCHEME: Ellis Johnson, who oversees the defense, favors a 4-2-5 scheme that features a position called "spur," a linebacker/strong safety hybrid. That set is designed especially to contain spread offenses. Johnson doesn't have the coordinator title – that belongs to new assistant Lorenzo Ward – but is the assistant head coach and will continue to run the defense.
STAR POWER: Senior LB Eric Norwood has earned All-SEC acclaim and will challenge for All-America honors. He has 22 career sacks; nine came last season, when he made the conversion from defensive end. He's South Carolina's career leader with 43 tackles for loss and has 174 stops in three seasons. Norwood is the first guy opposing offenses must account for when making a game plan.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman CB Stephon Gilmore was a four-star prospect and "Mr. Football" in South Carolina. He enrolled early and went through spring practice. His athletic ability will provide a big boost at cornerback, where the Gamecocks are in need. He'll also be used at quarterback in the "Wild Cock" formation.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Junior E Cliff Matthews is a high-energy player with great upside. His production hasn't matched his talent – he has just 58 tackles and three sacks in his career – but he showed substantial improvement in the spring. A breakout season could be looming.
STRONGEST AREA: Matthews heads a talented and experienced line. Matthews and Ts Nathan Pepper and Ladi Ajiboye each have more than 20 career starts. But Ajiboye may be backing up junior Travian Robertson, who had a tremendous spring. Junior E Clifton Geathers is the least experienced up front, but he's the most physically imposing at 6 feet 8 and 281 pounds. Depth looks good, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The secondary is cause for concern, and not just because Gilmore and sophomore Akeem Auguste are first-time starters at cornerback. Safeties Chris Culliver and Darian Stewart are solid, but depth throughout the unit is a big issue. The backups largely are unproven, so injuries could be devastating. In addition, the effectiveness of nickel and dime packages is uncertain.
Safeties coach Shane Beamer oversees special teams. If he's learned well from his father, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, the Gamecocks should be OK in the kicking game. Spencer Lanning averaged 42.1 yards to rank sixth in the SEC in punting last season. Lanning is expected to handle the kicking duties, too. Culliver is a good kick returner; he averaged just more than 24 yards per return last season. Auguste or starting WR Dion LeCorn likely will bring back punts. The coverage teams are effective, too.
Spurrier hasn't had tremendous success at South Carolina, but he also hasn't had a losing season in Columbia. That's actually quite an accomplishment: The last time the Gamecocks have gone four consecutive seasons without a losing record was 1987-90. Spurrier has had difficulty getting a quarterback he trusts, but maybe Garcia will be the one. Garcia certainly has the physical tools to succeed. Johnson did an excellent job as defensive coordinator last season, his first with the Gamecocks. They improved from 56th nationally in total defense to 13th. Yet despite's Johnson's success and Spurrier's history, there are questions about the rebuilt staff. Wolford and Ward, who oversees the cornerbacks, have big jobs ahead.
Few teams, if any, face a more demanding schedule. The Gamecocks play nine teams that made bowl appearances last season, including North Carolina State and Georgia in back-to-back road games to open the season. It doesn't get much easier later on with three preseason top-10 teams – Ole Miss, Alabama and Florida – looming. Not only that, South Carolina faces Tennessee and Arkansas on the road in consecutive weeks; both are seeking redemption for subpar showings a year ago. The Gamecocks close the season against archrival Clemson, which has won seven of the past eight in the series. There is one bright spot: After the two road games to open the season, South Carolina plays five of its next six at home.
The Gamecocks appear more talented than a year ago and should be better than last season. But with their minefield of a schedule, it might not show up in the won-lost record. Garcia's progress at quarterback and the offensive line's development are huge keys to South Carolina's success. But bettering the seven wins of last season won't be easy. Eight victories would be considered a resounding success.
N.C. State NEWS