By Jonathan Jolley
Steve Spurrier is heading into his fifth season at South Carolina this fall, and the Gamecocks will feature a young but talented team that hopes to bounce back after a poor finish to the 2008 season. Spurrier brought in six new assistant coaches to help get the program headed back in the right direction, and the team appeared to have more intensity and focus during spring practice with the fresh faces on staff. While some questions still remain, the Gamecocks are coming off what is easily the most productive and sound spring of the Spurrier era.
All eyes will be on redshirt sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia during the 2009 campaign, as the heralded 2007 signee is the clear starter and will be asked to lead this Gamecock team following the transfers of quarterbacks Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher. Garcia, who had missed the previous two springs due to off the field incidents, enjoyed a strong spring camp and made noticeable strides in his decision making and understanding of the offense. Spurrier has hinted that if Garcia puts in the effort this summer to study film and stay sharp by throwing with his receivers, he could be ready for a breakout year.
Garcia should receive more help this year from a previously league-worst offensive line thanks to the addition of new line coach Eric Wolford. The former Illinois line coach immediately put his stamp on the program during spring practice, simplifying the scheme and getting back to the basics of smash mouth football. The players responded positively to his brand of coaching, and while the true results will be seen during the fall, the line made marked improvement during spring ball, especially in paving the way for the ground game. Left tackle Jarriel King and center Garrett Anderson are the leaders of the offensive line, and both could vie for All-SEC honors this season if they stay healthy and play as well as expected.
The South Carolina offense will feature more spread formations and zone-read plays this season, and the Gamecocks will likely go from being a pass-first team to a more run-oriented offense this fall. That's certainly not vintage Steve Spurrier, but this USC team features a plethora of talented young running backs, highlighted by dynamic freshman and January enrollee Jarvis Giles. The young speedster concluded a productive spring with a 114 yard, two-touchdown performance in the spring game on only 12 carries. The trio of junior Brian Maddox, sophomore Eric Baker, and redshirt freshman Kenny Miles are all competing for positioning on the depth chart as well.
The Gamecocks will still pitch the ball around, though. Garcia will have a solid but relatively unheralded receiving corps to throw to following the loss of record-setting receiver Kenny McKinley and early departure Jared Cook. Redshirt sophomore Jason Barnes emerged as the No. 1 receiver during spring practice, and juniors Dion LeCorn and Joe Hills, senior Moe Brown, and surprise redshirt freshman Tori Gurley round out a fairly balanced receiver rotation. Prized 2009 signee Alshon Jeffery will also jump into the mix when he arrives during the summer.
The defense will be anchored by All-America candidate Eric Norwood. The two-time All-SEC performer and active conference leader in both sacks and tackles for loss will double as an outside linebacker and defensive end. He is the heart and soul of the defense, and the Gamecocks will rely on his veteran presence and game-changing ability to lead a defense which lost six starters from a year ago.
The line should be the strength of the defense, led by junior defensive ends Cliff Matthews and Clifton Geathers. Fifth-year senior Nathan Pepper is the glue of the interior line, although there are some concerns about the lack of proven depth behind him and juniors Travian Robertson and Ladi Ajiboye.
As expected, Norwood will headline the linebacker corps. Redshirt junior Rodney Paulk will be asked to fill the void of departed All-SEC middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, and JUCO transfers Tony Straughter and Josh Dickerson showed signs of emerging as quality contributors during spring practice.
The secondary should once again be solid, but there is a lack of depth behind corners Akeem Auguste and dynamic freshman Stephon Gilmore. Safeties Darian Stewart and Chris Culliver are proven commodities and could both realistically challenge for All-SEC honors.
There are some concerns at placekicker following the loss of Ryan Succop. Walk-on Spencer Lanning, the returning starter at punter, is expected to double as both the placekicker and punter this season, but he is not a consistent threat to hit field goals from beyond 40 yards.