There have been many great receivers that have come through the University of South Carolina; Fred Zeigler, Ira Hillary, Sterling Sharpe, Robert Brooks, Troy Williamson, Sidney Rice, and the late Kenny McKinley to name a few. However, there may not have been a better receiving corp than the one the Gamecocks have right now. This team has the height, speed, and hands that it takes to be an elite group of receivers. South Carolina fans got a glimpse of how good this group of receivers can be in last Saturday's 35-27 loss at Auburn. Four receivers caught 14 of 19 completed passes for 250 of the team's 305 receiving yards and three touchdown receptions against the Tigers.
Unquestionably the best receiver on the roster, Alshon Jeffery, had a career night against Auburn. The 6'4, 233 pound Sophomore from St. Matthews caught eight passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Jeffery's 192 yards was good for third best in school history behind Williamson's record 210 against South Florida in 2004. The performance gave Jeffery 498 receiving yards after four games in 2010, best in the country. Receiver's coach Steve Spurrier, Jr. says you never have to worry about effort when #1 is on the field.
"He's got a good attitude, he plays hard, and he plays with all he's got," Spurrier, Jr. said.
Jeffery showed his tremendous athleticism in each of his touchdown receptions against the Tigers. After seeing Cam Newton sprint for a 54 yard touchdown to open the scoring, Stephen Garcia found Jeffery laying out in the corner of the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown pass. He then went up high on a jump-ball for a 6-yard touchdown reception. Jeffery, who is always among the last to leave practice every night, says it's all a result of putting hard work into every practice.
"I try to catch a lot of balls every day, try to run some drills, try and focus on whatever Coach Spurrier, Jr. tells me to do," Jeffery said. "He'll give me some handouts to read or something and I'll just keep asking him whatever I can do to get better."
Jeffery had a chance to have a third unbelievable touchdown on what turned out to be the final offensive play of the game for the Gamecocks. Connor Shaw lofted one to Jeffery in the end zone in triple-coverage, but Jeffery couldn't quite come down with it and the ball eventually fell into the arms of Auburn defensive back Demond Washington. Spurrier, Jr. says Jeffery has put it behind him and is ready to move on.
"He was upset about that cause he'd like to make that catch, but he's a good player and he tries to get better every day," Spurrier, Jr. said.
Jeffery came on mid-way through the 2009 season. After battling out fellow freshman Tori Gurley, Jeffery came in and ended up leading the team in receptions (46), receiving yards (763) and touchdowns (6). He had a career-high three touchdowns in a 28-26 win over Kentucky. Through four games in 2010, Jeffery - who now has over 1,000 career receiving yards - is well on his way to topping all of hist 2009 statistics. Spurrier, Jr. says Jeffery is a unique player.
"He's just a quiet guy," Spurrier, Jr. said. "He's got a quiet demeanor so he kind of slips off (during practice) and runs his own routes and does some different little things. He's just different in his own little work ethic than most guys I've been around cause he's kinda quiet about it. Most guys that work hard are kinda loud and they bounce around. He's a humble guy that works hard which is unusual."
Gurley says that Jeffery is the bonified #1 receiver right now, but if the defense focuses on Jeffery too much, there are other options.
"He's just been working extremely hard and we've both been pushing each other to become the best player that we can be," Gurley said. "Right now he just has the hot hand and we've got to continue to feed him. But we have other guys that can get the job done."
Gurley has emerged as the #2 receiver for the Gamecocks this season. When Jeffery emerged as the top receiver last season, Gurley made the transition to slot receiver. Gurley finished the season with 440 yards and two touchdowns on 31 receptions. After having the off-season to work solely as the slot receiver, Gurley appears to be well on his way to having a great season as well. Gurley has 12 catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the last two games. Gurley credits it to just being more comfortable with his position.
"In the offense I'm just starting to feel a little bit more comfortable," Gurley said. "I'm asking a lot of questions, just getting involved, and just learning the details in every play. Coach Spurrier, Jr. has been doing a great job of coaching all of us up to go out and play and just be prepared to make plays. So as long as we continue to have that focus we have in practice we're gonna be OK."
Spurrier, Jr. has been pleased with Gurley's progress this season as a receiver. He's even happier with Gurley's ability to block.
"He's done better," Spurrier, Jr. said. "He's improved from last year - he's gotten smarter and stronger, but he's become a physical blocker, which is a dominant presence I really appreciate. He's certainly claimed that role and he's doing a good job at it so I really like having him on the field.
"The difference between good plays and great plays are receivers that can block," Spurrier, Jr. continued. "We've put an emphasis on that and we talk about it a lot and hopefully we can get some long runs."
Gurley had to fight hard for his touchdown against the Tigers. He finished off a 3-play, 75-yard drive - helped by Jeffery's 69-yard reception - by fighting through a defender at the goal line and stretching the ball into the end zone. Gurley says that drive is just proof of how fast the Gamecock offense is capable of striking.
"We didn't have the ball (long), but we still scored in 3 or 4 plays so it lets everyone know that we're explosive and can score at will," Gurley said.
With Jeffery and Gurley getting most of the attention, there are several receivers that haven't had a lot of production. D.L. Moore has two touchdowns on just four receptions, Jason Barnes has a 16-yard reception, and Patrick DiMarco has 46 yards on seven receptions. Spurrier, Jr. says it's not a lack of talent behind Jeffery and Gurley, but just a lack of opportunities.
"It's hard to say," Spurrier, Jr. said of the lack of production from the other receivers. "They need to get some opportunities to go play. They're all good players. They have different skills, each of them are a little different. I hope they can get the opportunity to go play a little bit - get the ball thrown at them and see what they can do."
The most explosive player in that group that is getting the most attention is Freshman Ace Sanders. Spurrier, Jr. says he would love to give Sanders a lot of playing time, but he's stuck behind Gurley at slot right now.
"We'd like to (play Sanders more), but he's kind of right behind Tori and Tori's a little bit better blocker," Spurrier, Jr. said. "So we leave Tori in for different things and rotate Ace in for different things, but Ace needs to be on the field a little bit more and I expect to see him a little bit more this week."
Sanders has proven to be a big play threat virtually every time he has the ball in his hands. The first time he touched the ball against Southern Miss, Sanders got the ball on a reverse and ran it 53 yards inside the Golden Eagle 10-yard line. He also caught two passes for 47 yards in his first collegiate game.
In the game against the Tigers, Sanders only caught one pass for 11 yards. Sanders says he wasn't as concerned about how many touches he got, but what he does when he had it.
"I was just seeing how it played out," Sanders said of his lack of touches. "I don't expect more or expect less. I just do whatever I can when I get a chance. However the game went, that's what the game plan was so I was fine with it."
With #1 Alabama rolling into Columbia next week, Gamecock fans may see more of Sanders.
"They're trying to use me more on special teams now so I'll probably be seeing time maybe at kick return, a little at punt return," Sanders said.
If there is a weakness in Bama's defense, it's the secondary. The Tide ranks 6th in the SEC, giving up 189 yards per game. While not the best definition of weakness, it may be the best shot South Carolina has of pulling out a win. Spurrier, Jr. says his guys will be up to the challenge.
"They don't have a whole lot of weaknesses," Spurrier, Jr. said. "We got to play well - we gotta have a good plan for them, we've got to find some ways to get open, we got to stay on the field. It'll be a good, tough game for us, but every game's a challenge. Strength or weakness, (our) receiver's are gonna come ready to play. We got a group we think we can throw the ball to and win the game."
One thing the Gamecocks will have to do is put the ball in the end zone when they get inside the red zone, something they have done well all season. South Carolina is 15-of-16 in the red zone this season, scoring touchdowns on 13 of the 16 trips (81%). Spurrier, Jr. credits a lot of it to execution.
"Our touchdown ratio's been good," Spurrier, Jr. said. "We've gotten to good plays and we've executed. We've had a lot of plays that were really close that in the past we might not have hit that we've hit them this year. It's been nice."
Jeffery says it's an important game for the Gamecocks and he hopes home field advantage will pay off.
"It's a big game for us," Jeffery said. "We're playing at home so we're gonna come out and try our best to come out with a win."
For now, though, it's about healing up and relaxing this weekend. Gurley says the bye week is needed before a long stretch of non-stop football.
"Physically we just need a break from football," Gurley said. "This weekend everyone should just stay safe and be prepared for next Monday when we start working on Alabama."
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