What we've learned part I

We are already a third of the way through the 2012 football season and we have learned many things about the South Carolina team over the course of the first four games. In part I of the three part series, we take a look at what we've learned about the Gamecock offense.

Believe it or not, following Saturday's 31-10 win over Missouri, sixth-ranked South Carolina has completed a third of its regular season games. Carolina stands at 4-0 and 2-0 in the SEC after the first third of the season and will begin the second third Saturday in Lexington, Kentucky. Through the first four games, we have learned a number of things about this South Carolina program.

Today we take a look at the offensive side of the ball.

1. Connor Shaw is tough

If you didn't know it before, Connor Shaw is one of the toughest players on the South Carolina roster. Shaw cracked a bone in his throwing shoulder late in the first half of the season-opener at Vanderbilt. Back-up quarterback Dylan Thompson clearly was not ready to go in to his first ever legitimate game action on the road in a tight game. Shaw would take some medicine and hop right back into action and lead Carolina on a game-winning drive, all the while taking shot after shot to that injured shoulder.

If that was not enough, Shaw would try to return to action two weeks against UAB. Shaw would not have his best stuff that day and again went out late in the first half after injuring the shoulder again. Against all odds, Shaw returned the following week to take on Missouri and completed 20-of-21 passes to lead Carolina to the win. If Shaw can complete his first five passes against Kentucky, he will break the NCAA record for consecutive completions that is currently held by former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin. Martin became the first player in NCAA history to complete 23 passes in a row in the same game when he went 23-for-23 against South Carolina in 1998. He would complete his first pass the following week before throwing an incompletion.

2. South Carolina has two legitimate quarterbacks

Coming off the horrible performance against Vanderbilt when Thompson was unknowingly tossed into the fire, it was apparent all week hat Thompson would start the following game against ECU and play at least most of the game. Shaw was on stand-by and could have played if Thompson did not perform well, but he was not needed at all. Thompson scorched the ECU secondary for 330 yards and three touchdowns as Carolina rolled to a 48-10 win over the Pirates. Thompson would come in for Shaw the following week against UAB, and after a slow start, would throw for 177 yards and two touchdowns, including a 94-yard toss to Damiere Byrd.

Make no mistake, Shaw is clearly the number one quarterback, but Thompson is a legitimate back-up. Both quarterbacks could start at a lot of schools, including at least half of the SEC schools. It is a great problem for Steve Spurrier to have.

3. Marcus Lattimore is back

If there was any doubt that Marcus Lattimore was not 100% it was answered in the season opener. Lattimore rushed for 110 yards and scored both of Carolina's touchdowns in the 14-10 win. Lattimore has not been able to surpass the 100-yard mark since, but with the success of Shaw and Thompson throwing the ball he hasn't had to.

We did see a glimpse of the old Lattimore last week against Missouri. Throughout Lattimore's career, he has been a back that seemingly got better as the game progressed. When defenses began wearing down, Lattimore was at his best. We saw that in the win over Missouri as Lattimore carried the ball 21 times for 85 yards and two scores and began to run right through the defense in the second half. With Georgia, LSU, Florida, and Tennessee all on the horizon, that was a good thing to see. It was also the first time Lattimore chose not to wear the knee brace. Now the school's leader in career touchdowns and rushing touchdowns, Lattimore must have those kinds of performances in the coming weeks.

4. Life without Alshon has been great

Perhaps the biggest question entering the season on the offensive side of the ball was replacing the production of Alshon Jeffery. There is not a player on the roster that can be the kind of receiver Jeffery was, and the coaching staff knew that. It would take a group effort to replace the numbers Jeffery put up the last two seasons.

After the receivers struggled to just three catches and 26 yards receiving in the Vanderbilt game, the group was undoubtedly challenged by receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. Over the course of the last three games, the group has responded well. Bruce Ellington has caught 10 passes for 178 yards, all in the last three games, to lead the receivers, and Ace Sanders is right behind him with eight catches for 95 yards and two scores. Damiere Byrd leads the team in receiving yards with 214 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions, and Nick Jones and Shaq Roland each have three receptions for 55 yards and Roland has one touchdown reception. The receivers have caught seven of the ten touchdown passes as well.

Though none will likely put up the numbers that Jeffery did, there is certainly more diversity than there has been in quite some time.

5. O-line a work in progress

If there has been a disappointing group so far this season, it would have to be the offensive line. Everyone knew there would be some degree of struggling early on after the loss of three starters from last year's line, but there is just so much talent that it should have corrected itself early on in fall camp. It obviously didn't and offensive line coach Shawn Elliott has had to make several adjustments to the starting line-up.

Brandon Shell was expected to come in and be one of the best offensive linemen in program history, and while that is certainly still possible for the redshirt freshman, he has not shown it so far. He earned the starting job at left tackle against Vanderbilt and looked lost for the most part. Mike Matulis moved over to left tackle spot and Cody Gibson came in at right tackle to replace Shell, and things began to work better against the Commodores. That did not last long as the tackle position has been a revolving door with Gibson, Shell, and Corey Robinson. Gibson started the next two games before being replaced by Robinson. Robinson seemed to play well against Missouri and could earn the starting job permanently.

Other than that battle, Ronald Patrick, T.J. Johnson, A.J. Cann, and Matulis have all started each game and played well. The offensive line made progress last week and will have to continue to do so if Carolina hopes to be playing in Atlanta in December.

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