Coming out of spring practice, the writing on the wall is that Dondrial Pinkins will be the starter going into the 2004 season. Despite a huge spring game for Syvelle Newton, Pinkins is still the number 1 QB ... for now. The inevitable questions are being asked. Can Dondrial Pinkins have a stellar senior season and lead this team back to a bowl? Can Pinkins even hold onto his job - with the emergence of Syvelle Newton?
Look at it this way. Either way, they are better off than last year. If Pinkins improves from last season along with an improved defense, then they go bowling. If Newton wins the job, then it would stand to reason that he moves the offense better than Pinkins, so again they are better off. Best case scenario is that Pinkins and Newton both play well and share time early to avoid having Newton's feet in the fire from the very beginning. Then, the best man wins out in the end. While I am very anxious to see what Newton and/or Mitchell could do for for the Gamecocks, I also try to be realistic and remember that neither Newton or Mitchell has college experience at quarterback. There are many examples of first year starters at quarterback in the league, but those quarterbacks also make their share of mistakes. Unless SC's defense is absolutely stellar, they are not going to be a team that can afford a lot of mistakes at the quarterback position.
The whole quarterback debate has been kicked around in numerous threads already on the message boards, so there is no point in rehashing it here. Let's just say they need more productivity out of that position and leave it at that.
Pinkins, or whoever wins the starting job, has to receive help from his wide outs - pardon the pun. One has to wonder how different last season might have been if the receivers had caught half the passes that were dropped. While I believe there is some merit to the theory that Pinkins throws a ball that is harder to catch, SEC caliber receivers shouldn't drop balls that hit them in the hands. Another area where the receivers need to improve upon is their basic fundamentals. One of those fundamentals is finding a way to get open. So many times last year Pinkins would find himself in trouble in the backfield and the receivers would just stand around watching. They should have been coming back toward the ball to give Pinkins an outlet to dump. Instead, Pinkins was often forced to throw it away or tuck it and run. Similarly, sometimes Pinkins would have plenty of time in the pocket, yet no receiver would break-out into the open. Receivers should know how to break off of their routes when necessary and just get open. Conversely, the quarterback should be able to find those receivers and not always rely on them being in the exact same place every time. So many times in football, long gains result from broken plays because great players just know how to make things happen.
It is not that unusual for a player to finally live up to his potential his senior year when stakes are highest. One could compare it to the professional player that suddenly has a career year in the last year of his contract. In college though - it's more than that. The player has been in the system for 4 -5 years, they are settled into their academic situation, etc, and they are able to concentrate on their sport. We need look no further than our own basketball team's Michael Boynton for example. Maybe Pinkins can "pull a Boynton" and really get it going his senior year. Otherwise, If Newton wins the job, let's hope he can avoid the mistakes that so often plagues young quarterbacks.
When Jimmy Johnson was coach of the Dallas Cowboys, he always preached a philosophy of having as many playmakers on the field at one time as possible. Johnson basically said, that you need players on the field that know how to make things happen. This is an area where SC has been lacking the last couple of seasons. To compete in the SEC, you need great role players, but you also need a great playmaker or two. Playmakers are players on offense that are capable of taking it all the way every time that they touch the ball, and players on defense that can completely disrupt the opposing team's offensive game plan. It cannot be the same player every week, so you have to have enough playmakers to have somebody able to step-it-up each week while other players are double and triple teamed.
South Carolina has some potential playmakers on offense. They will need a few of these to step forward in 2004 if they hope to have a successful season. Who will step forward for the Gamecock offense in 2004?
Matthew Thomas - This guy is a mystery to Gamecock fans. He seems to have All-American credentials, but you never know which Matthew Thomas is going to show up.
Troy Williamson - Williamson's freshman season had him being proclaimed as one of the best up and coming receivers in the nation, but he dropped off last year. He has sprinter speed for the sideline routes, but he has to learn to get open more often across the middle and on the slants ... and more importantly catch the ball consistently.
Noah Whiteside - Everyone has something good to say about Noah Whiteside. He seems to have all the tools - great hands and great speed, and he is fearless. Gamecock fans got a taste of Noah's potential last year in the Ole Miss game. By most accounts, this guy will be starting come the fall.
Syvelle Newton - Will he be a quarterback or wide receiver? At the moment he may be a quarterback. Bottom line is the coaches will have to figure out how to get the ball in Syvelle's hands no matter what position he plays. SC cannot afford to waste Newton's talent on the bench.
Demetris Summers - This guy has all the moves. Yet he has to prove that he can stay healthy and be more physical inside. If so, he could be fun to watch. The Gamecocks have one of the most talented backfields in the country. All the running backs are talented, but Summers has the ability to take one 50 yards whereas the others seem limited to half that distance at one pop.
Corey Boyd - While Boyd may not have the highlight-reel moves of Summers, he is explosive. And as a certain UVA defensive player may testify, you do not want to be on the receiving end of a Boyd momentum lick.
Gonzie Gray - This guy could be a sleeper pick for the offensive playmaker. He is very fast, but will have a hard time getting on the field. The Gamecocks simply have more talented depth at running back than any other position on the field.
On defense, they need players that create havoc for the opposing offenses. During the successful 2000 and 2001 seasons, the defense set the tone by creating turnovers and limiting first downs. They gave their offense chances by leaving them in good field position as a result of interceptions, fumble recoveries, or simply three and outs. The last two years have been sorely lacking in those key categories.
Here are the potential Gamecock playmakers on defense.
Moe Thompson - Thompson is every bit as good as any defensive end in the SEC. He is a quarterback's worst nightmare. He will definitely get his share of big plays no matter what. If only he could count on help from the rest of the defensive line so that he is not double teamed game in and game out, he could have a monstrous season.
George Gause - Gause was hobbled by injury last year. This team needs Gause to stay healthy, not only because he is a great talent with a lot of potential in his own right, but because he might help take some of the double teams away from Moe.
Jonathan Joseph - Joseph not only has the potential to be a lock-down corner, but also one of those types of corners that is capable of intercepting a ball and taking it back the other way. Those types of plays and players are back-breakers for opposing teams.
Ricardo Hurley - Hurley is another player that was hobbled by injury almost all of last year. When healthy, he has the potential to wreak havoc on the defensive side of the ball. The linebacker group as a whole could be very very good if Minter can get them to play to their potential, and if they stay healthy.
On defense, it will also be interesting to see if any of the new guys coming in the fall can make immediate contributions. Marque Hall and Matt Raysor are probably two of the biggest names there.
If you watched the Gamecock defense closely last season, you may not be familiar with the term "pass rush" since you rarely saw one. So, allow me define it for you. Pass rush is when there are actually defensive players in the offensive backfield going after the quarterback - applying pressure. It doesn't matter how good your secondary is, good quarterbacks and receivers are going to hook up eventually when you give the quarterback all day to throw. Hopefully, the Gamecocks will make a lot of improvement in 2004 in this area - a must for a successful campaign.
Part of the equation for a good pass rush is talent. The defensive line is arguably the best group Holtz has had since he has been at South Carolina. When you add the newcomers Marque Hall and Matt Raysor, as well as Charles Silas coming off his redshirt year, the talent has definitely been upgraded.
Another part of the equation is scheme. LSU had probably the best defensive line in the conference last year, but even they had to blitz to be successful on defense. South Carolina absolutely cannot just sit on their heels and expect their defensive linemen to apply all the pressure to opposing quarterbacks. No matter how good they are, this will never happen if they don't have help from the linebackers and safeties.
The last part of the equation is coaching. It is hard to argue that a defensive coordinator with the resume of Rick Minter is not an upgrade from last year. We will see how it pans out once the season arrives and he is placed under the gun. Working for Lou Holtz is no cup of tea, but Minter has experience in this regard and that may pay dividends in more ways than simply his coaching ability. Manipulating Holtz is an under-appreciated talent.
There are 3 things certain in life: death, taxes, and the Gamecocks will suffer some sort of adversity early in a season. Gamecock coaches, players, and fans have to learn to deal with and overcome adversity. Going into this season, there are already distractions. They have the back to back 5-7 seasons to contend with and the subsequent Lou bashing on the message boards with accompanying thrashing from the media, the addition of player transfers, and of course the rumors circulated by their neighbors in orange to the north about NCAA investigations, etc. Whew, it makes you want to stop and catch your breath. These sort of distractions can have two completely different effects. They can either destroy a team's psyche, or bring them together and make them more determined to succeed. Early indications are that the team has been unified ... made more determined. Time will tell.
Once the season starts, the team will inevitably encounter more adversity. They will have to avoid the "here we go again" attitude every time something goes wrong in a game. They have had a hard time overcoming the normal week to week hurdles of SEC play during the past couple of seasons. Overcoming adversity is accomplished through sound and confident leadership on the field. Hopefully, with a year or two now under their belt, some of SC's older players will step into their roles and ensure the team does not go down the path of negativity.
The last two years LSU seemed to rip the heart out of SC in the post aftermath of humiliating defeats. Folks, LSU also ripped Georgia apart in the SEC championship game, but it hardly affected Georgia's post game confidence, nor did it affect their post season play. The reason for that is that Georgia has experienced enough success so as to see one defeat as more of a bump in the road. The Gamecocks on the other hand, since they have rarely beat the upper echelon teams, seem to put all their hopes and dreams into one game only to have them completely destroyed when they lose.
When the Gamecocks lose a game during the upcomming season, the message boards will light up and all of the Lou Bashers will come out in the media. This team has to be able to overcome the adversity and persevere. Winning, after suffering through the losses, will silence the nay sayers.
Potential is a word that all Gamecock fans are familiar with. It is the 'wait until next year mentality ... this team has potential.' It is their hope for the future. Will the Gamecocks finally live up to their potential in 2004? On paper, this team is more talented than any team Lou Holtz has fielded at USC, and the schedule favors the Gamecocks this season but the coaches will have to bring out the full potential in the players in their charge. If they can do that, it will be a successful campaign. The solutions are simple ones and the talent is there. These are all Lou Holtz recruited players. This is the sixth and telling season under Holtz. The schedule is there and ripe for success. If the Gamecocks can show improvement in the area of the Five Ps ... 2004 could be a very good year.
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