Preview: South Carolina Gamecocks

The 8-4 Iowa Hawkeyes will face the 7-5 South Carolina Gamecocks in the 2009 Outback Bowl on January 1st.'s Chris Wellbaum put together a synopsis of the 2008 Gamecocks for the subscribers of, which should help Hawkeye fans get a better grip on what to expect on New Year's Day.

When Carolina Runs:  When Carolina runs the ball, not much happens.  The Gamecocks averaged just 98.3 yards per game, last in the SEC.  Even worse, Carolina averaged just 2.9 yards per attempt.


Mike Davis had a disappointing senior season, rushing for just 571 yards and one 100-yard game  Still, he is a capable, hard-nosed runner, especially in short yardage and red zone situations.  Davis' short stature and solid build make him difficult to tackle, but he lacks the vision and top-end speed to consistently break long runs.  Reserves Eric Baker and Brian Maddox are more explosive than Davis, but are inconsistent runners who sometimes have trouble finding the hole.


The Gamecocks do not have an elite running back like Shonn Green, but the real blame for their anemic ground game goes to the offensive line.  The line has utterly failed to get consistent push or open holes.  Many times this season, Davis would make a great run, breaking two or three tackles, just to get back to the line of scrimmage.  Not surprisingly, offensive line coach John Hunt was fired the day after the season ended, and graduate assistant Cedric Williams has assumed Hunt's duties.  Williams wants to install a more aggressive blocking scheme than what Hunt used, but it remains to be seen if he can produce any improvement.


Against Iowa's talented defensive line, rushing yards will be hard to come by.  In fact, Carolina's biggest rushing threat may well by quarterback Stephen Garcia.  Garcia is not a Tim Tebow-type running threat, but he is more than mobile enough to make plays with his feet, and led the Gamecocks in rushing against UAB.


When Carolina Passes:  With no help from the running game, Carolina's offense boils down to the passing game, which has been inconsistent this year.  Steve Spurrier claims he does not like rotating quarterbacks, but anybody who has followed his coaching career knows he keeps the quarterback on an extremely short leash.  Three quarterbacks have started for the Gamecocks this year, and in two games Spurrier rotated Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia on every play.  Garcia, a Tampa native, will get the call in the Outback Bowl.  He is the most athletically talented of the quarterbacks, but the redshirt freshman lacks experience running Spurrier's system.  Having a month to prepare for the Outback Bowl should be a major boost for Garcia, enabling he and Spurrier to be on the same page come game day.


Garcia's biggest asset is also his biggest liability.  He has the mobility to take off running if the play breaks down.  He is also good at throwing on the run and making "sandlot" plays.  However, Garcia sometimes bails on the play too quickly and takes off running before the receivers have a chance to get open.


Garcia will be throwing to some very talented receivers.  Wide receiver Kenny McKinley owns nearly every receiving record at Carolina and is one of just five players in SEC history with 200 career receptions.  He injured a hamstring in the first quarter against Vanderbilt and missed the next three games, otherwise he probably would have been a first or second team All-SEC performer since he led the conference with 5.3 receptions per game.  McKinley is not the most athletically gifted player, but he is a precise route runner with great hands who is willing to go over the middle.  Junior tight end Jared Cook could be a first round draft pick in the NFL Draft if he leaves early.  A converted wide receiver, Cook is a matchup nightmare for defenses because of his size (6'5") and speed (4.3 in the 40).  He led the Gamecocks in yards per catch, and finished with 35 receptions for 550 yards.  Behind Cook is Weslye Saunders, who is more of a traditional tight end.  Saunders is even bigger than Cook, and nearly as athletic.  He was in the coaches' doghouse early in the year, but came on late, including catching the game-winning touchdown against Kentucky.


When teams run against Carolina: You have to figure there were not many rushing yards in Carolina practices this year, because as bad as the Gamecocks' rushing offense is, the rush defense is that good.  First year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson transformed an area of weakness into one of strength this year.  The Gamecocks are a fast, physical, and very hard-hitting defense, but they finished the year with two terrible games against Florida and Clemson.


Shonn Green is probably the best running back Carolina will face this year, but the Gamecocks have already seen, and shut down, some good ones.  Carolina held Knowshon Moreno to 79 yards, Charles Scott to 61 yards, Arian Foster to 56 yards, and Michael Smith to 25 yards before knocking him out of the game with an injury.


Ladi Ajiboye anchors the defensive line, along with run stuffers Nathan Pepper and Jordin Lindsey.  The linebackers are a pair of 260-pounders in Jasper Brinkley and All-SEC player Eric Norwood.  Darian Stewart plays the spur, which is a third safety that lines up in the box.  Safety Emanuel Cook is a tackling machine who will probably spend most of the game in the box as well.


When teams pass against Carolina:  The Gamecocks' pass defense is even stronger than the run defense.  They led the SEC, allowing just 160.2 yards per game.  Cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn, Stoney Woodson, and Carlos Thomas are about as good a trio as there is on any team.  Munnerlyn has not had his best season, but he is a shut-down corner who makes up for his lack of ideal height with very physical play.  Woodson and Thomas are not spectacular players, but are two solid cover men.  Free safety Chris Culliver is one of the fastest players on the team.  He has a knack for making big plays, but he can also get caught out of position by a smart quarterback.


Carolina's pass rush gives the secondary a big boost.  Behind Norwood's SEC leading nine sacks, the Gamecocks averaged 2.5 sacks per game, tied for third in the SEC.  On passing downs, Norwood slides from linebacker to defensive end to maximize pressure.



Special Teams:  Special teams have been an area of strength for the Gamecocks this year under new coordinator Ray Rychleski.  Rychleski had a personal streak snapped in the final game of the year against Clemson when the Tigers blocked a punt.  It was the first time Rychleski had a blocked punt in seven years, going back to his time at Maryland.  Spencer Lanning has been a solid punter, averaging 42 yards per punt and the coverage has been solid, allowing 8.5 yard per return.  However, Carolina will be without its best gunner on punt coverage, Chris Hail, who has been dismissed from the team.


Kicker Ryan Succop has one of the strongest legs in the country, and had 25 touchbacks on kickoffs.  Succop is a very good field goal kicker who led the SEC with 19 field goals.  His range on field goals is a major weapon for the Gamecocks (a long of 54 yards), as they are in scoring range almost as soon as they cross midfield. 


The return game has been exciting, both good and bad.  Captain Munnerlyn is dangerous returning both punts and kicks, with a long punt return of 35 yards and a long kick return of 84.  However, he does not always field the ball cleanly, which led to his being taken off punt returns late in the season.  In his place, Akeem Auguste and Kenny McKinley are options.  Splitting time with Munnerlyn on kick returns is Chris Culliver, who had a long of 67 yards and the fourth best return average in the SEC, 24.4 yards.



Final thoughts:  It is always true that, with the month long layoff and all the distractions, the team that shows up for a bowl game has little in common with the team that went through the season.  That makes predicting how a team will play difficult, and that is certainly the case with South Carolina, given everything that has happened over the last month. 


For all his talent and play-making ability, Garcia is still a quarterback who keeps both teams in the game.  Will the month of preparation allow him to become the quarterback everyone thinks he can be?  Furthermore, how will he respond to playing in his home town?


The offensive line play this year was nothing short of a disaster, so it cannot be any worse under Cedric Williams.  But will he be able to get any improvement out of the unit?


The Gamecocks were rolling along at 7-3 with a dominant defense that more than made up for the inconsistent offense.  The wheels fell off in the final two games of the year.  Florida routed Carolina 56-6, and then the Gamecocks laid an egg in the 31-14 loss to rival Clemson.  A players-only meeting was called following that loss, as the players tried to regroup and heal any rifts that might be forming.  The early returns suggest that meeting was effective in changing the mood of the team, but will that lead to a better effort on the field, or lead to more in fighting?

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