The injuries are starting to pile up for fourteenth-ranked South Carolina. After a relative injury-free year in 2010, the Gamecock football team has suffered plenty through the first seven weeks of the 2011 season.
Senior cornerback Akeem Auguste suffered a foot injury before the season and, despite playing briefly in the Georgia game, has been sidelined the entire season. Head coach Steve Spurrier said they were going to decide during the off week whether or not to shut Auguste down for the season. That decision has been made and Auguste will miss the season and will return for a fifth year in 2012.
"Akeem is actually having surgery in a week or so," Spurrier said at his weekly press conference. "He'll be going to Charlotte to have a plate put in his foot and they let it sit there for a while and then take it out from what I understand. He'll be redshirted this year and hopefully be 100% by next season."
It was during that Georgia game that Carolina lost one back-up running back for the season and another back-up running back was injured and has yet to play since. Shon Carson suffered a knee injury when he was tackled after a swing pass early in the contest and is out for the season. Later in the same game Kenny Miles injured his wrist and has yet to play since. Following Saturday's game against Mississippi State Spurrier said that Miles has not gotten to the point where he can catch passes or block with the injured wrist due to a cast on the injured wrist. The team hopes to finally have Miles available next week when the team travels to Knoxville.
"Kenny we hope will play," Spurrier said. "He had his wrist in a cast. We'll have to see how much he can do."
Already down two back-ups, the Gamecocks have been without a third back-up, Eric Baker. Baker, after having a strong 2008 season, entered the 2009 season atop the depth chart before being sidelined after a hernia operation prior to the season. Baker fell down the depth chart and did not get many carries. A torn ACL prior to the Papa John's Bowl kept Baker out the entire 2010 season and he has not shown quite the explosiveness since. His injury-plagued Gamecock career continues as he is currently sidelined with an ankle injury.
"Eric has a sprained ankle, but hopefully next week by the Tennessee game we'll be ready to go," Spurrier said.
Carolina suffered their biggest injury in quite some time when All-American running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury while blocking for Bruce Ellington in the fourth quarter.
"Obviously Marcus won the east division for us last year," Spurrier said. "You see all the big games we won with his carries - Florida, Georgia, Tennessee - but we have to go with what we've got. We're all pulling for Marcus to have a very successful surgery. We know he'll work at rehabilitation as much as any guy in America will. We believe he'll come back stronger than he ever has been. We'll regroup and play with who we've got. That's all we can do."
As of right now, down four running backs, the position of perhaps the most depth on the team has quickly become one of the thinnest. No one thought that going into the eighth game of the season that true freshman Brandon Wilds would be the starting running back.
"Brandon (Wilds) is next in line. He'll get his chance," Spurrier said. "If we can make some yards, certainly we can hand it off to him 20 or 25 times. He's got good size, good quickness and good speed, and he's ready to go."
Wilds has just 13 carries on the season, but has 75 yards, an average of 5.8 yards per carry. If Miles and Baker are not healthy by next Saturday, Josh Hinch will be the back-up to Wilds. In the Spring Game, Hinch ran the ball three times for -2 yards, but had six receptions for 43 yards.
"Josh Hinch is the next man in line," Spurrier said. "He's from Knoxville by the way. That's interesting. He may be the backup tailback if Kenny can't go and Eric isn't ready to play. He was in the spring game. I think he caught four or five passes. He's a nifty fellow. He's a pretty good little player. If we have to play with him he can do it."
Spurrier didn't dismiss the notion of moving Ellington to the backfield, but it would likely be more plays out of the Wildcat than as a running back.
"It is more involved than just sticking him back there right now," Spurrier said. "He's not going to be a running back per se. We won't ask him to pick up the blitzing linebackers and such which is what running backs do nowadays. He'll be in there in the wildcat. As we know he can throw it, so we'll have some passes for him; more than last week. We're going to let him go."
Nunn out of season
Offensive lineman Kyle Nunn has not played since the Navy game with a back injury. Last week he suffered a blood clot in his leg and was hospitalized. While his health has improved, the senior will not play again this season.
"Kyle has all kind of problems," Spurrier said. "He actually went in the hospital last week with a potential blood clot in his leg. He's on blood thinners and he's out for the year. I don't think his back requires surgery but he's definitely out for the year. He's hoping to maybe get a medical hardship and get a sixth year. We'll apply for that and see what happens."
Special teams lacking
When Ace Sanders returned a punt for a touchdown in the season opener against East Carolina, it was the first special teams touchdown return of the Spurrier era. Since then, there has been little change in special teams over recent years. Carolina is tenth in the SEC in kick-off return average (20.5), sixth in punt return average (7.9), eighth in punting (36.8), tenth in kickoff coverage (43.6), ninth in field goal percentage (.667), and eleventh in extra point percentage (.935).
"We're not quite making anything happen," Spurrier said. "There's no question about it. It's frustrating to all of us. We actually had a chance to block two punts last week. We got close but just didn't make the play. We're not holding guys up real well. We're not blocking well on kickoff returns."
There is no doubt that there have been plenty of distractions this season, particularly in the last few weeks. Between the multitude of injuries and the dismissal of Stephen Garcia, it would be understandable if the team struggled to focus. Spurrier says that's not the case.
"We're focusing on trying to play the game a lot better and play our assignments a lot better every time out," Spurrier said. "That's the only thing we really talk about. Next week for Tennessee we'll just talk about trying to beat them. I'm a coach who believes you worry about yourself more than your opponent. The final outcome will take care of itself if we can control our own individual performance every play through the course of a game."
It will be extremely important that the team keep that focus the last five games of the season, especially the SEC match-ups with Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida. The Gamecocks are currently tied with Georgia atop the SEC East and has the tiebreaker with the 45-42 win over the Dawgs earlier this season. With games against Florida and two home games against Auburn and Kentucky, it's hard to see Georgia losing more than one of the games if they lose any. That places extreme importance on each of the three remaining conference games.
"I appreciate all our fans hanging with us," Spurrier said. "We're in position. We can't complain about our record, but we need to play better if we'll have a shot to win the east."
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