The Gamecocks were the second youngest team in all of the FBS last season and battled a brutal schedule, yet still finished with a respectable seven-win campaign. Like any young team, the 2009 Gamecocks had their ups and downs last season. However, with 16 starters back along with the majority of last year’s two-deep, the hope in Gamecock Nation is that the 2010 USC squad is ready to grow up and emerge as a legitimate contender in the SEC East.
The strength of the team is once again expected to be coach Ellis Johnson’s defensive unit. The Gamecocks finished third in the SEC and 15th nationally in total defense last fall, and this year’s defense will be even deeper and more experienced.
The defense will be led by senior All-SEC defensive end Cliff Matthews, who turned down a first-day NFL draft grade to return for his final year of eligibility. Matthews will be part of a veteran-laden front seven, which should be even better than a year ago thanks in part to the return of senior linebacker Rodney Paulk and junior defensive tackle Travian Robertson from knee injuries.
Junior linebacker Shaq Wilson, last season’s leading tackler, could be one of the most underrated players in the SEC. Returning Freshman All-America Stephon Gilmore will undoubtedly be one of the top cornerbacks in the league, and senior All-SEC safety Chris Culliver will make the transition to corner, allowing ball-hawking junior Akeem Auguste to slide over to free safety, further bolstering what should once again be one of the nation’s top defensive backfields.
The Gamecock offense will be headlined by junior quarterback Stephen Garcia, the second leading passer in the SEC last fall, and returning Freshman All-America wideout Alshon Jeffery. Garcia-to-Jeffery promises to be one of the better combinations in the league, and Jeffery will be complemented by one of the deepest receiver corps the Gamecocks have featured in many years.
Sophomores Tori Gurley and D.L. Moore, junior Jason Barnes, and senior Dion LeCorn have all made strong cases for starting jobs, while redshirt freshmen Demario Bennett and Lamar Scruggs are talented youngsters to watch. True freshman quarterback Connor Shaw is coming off a tremendous spring, and he could challenge for some playing time in the fall.
USC’s offense has underachieved for most of Spurrier‘s tenure, due largely to poor offensive line play and the lack of a consistent running attack. However, the Gamecocks showed signs of promise in both of those areas down the stretch last season by going to a zone-read based running game.
New offensive line coach and running game coordinator Shawn Elliott has taken over for the departed Eric Wolford, and he has continued to build on the foundation that Wolford started last season. Spurrier, who will take over the play-calling responsibilities this fall, has said that USC will have a renewed commitment to the running game in 2010, making the zone-read a staple of the offense.
With a veteran offensive line returning, led by senior left tackle Jarriel King and talented redshirt sophomore center T.J. Johnson, the hope is that the Gamecocks will play at a much higher level up front than in years past.
Heralded newcomer Marcus Lattimore, the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit, will join a talented returning backfield to spearhead the renewed emphasis on the ground game. Returning starter Kenny Miles had a strong freshman season last fall, highly touted sophomore speedster Jarvis Giles has continued to improve, and senior Brian Maddox is a weapon in short yardage and goal line situations. There will be no shortage of talent and versatility in the Gamecock backfield, the key will simply be giving the backs room to run.
If the USC offense can make significant strides to complement the always-stingy Gamecock defense, this is a team that could be capable of making some noise in the SEC East race. Carolina gets Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas at home, with favorable conference road matchups against Kentucky and Vanderbilt. However, if the Gamecocks hope to win the Eastern Division, they will in all likelihood need to win the mid-November showdown against Florida in The Swamp.
We’ll find out then if the 2010 Gamecocks have indeed grown up and are ready to be contenders.