In 2005, it was a win at Tennessee, something the Gamecocks had never accomplished in Knoxville, and a victory over Florida, USC's first over the Gators since the 1930s - statement games that made the college football world stand up and take notice that this was no longer their father's South Carolina program. The win over Florida lifted Carolina into the No. 19 spot in the national rankings with a 7-3 mark and was the squad's school-record fifth-consecutive SEC win. The Gamecocks ended the season on a sour note with close losses to arch-rival Clemson in the regular season finale and to Missouri in the Independence Bowl to finish the season with a 7-5 record. It is that bitter taste that Coach Spurrier hopes will remain in his returning players' mouths as they prepare for the 2006 campaign.
However, navigating through the upcoming season will not be an easy one for Coach Spurrier and his band of Gamecocks as they envision a top-25 finish. Coach Spurrier would be the first to admit that "God smiled on the Gamecocks" more than once in 2005. Carolina was 5-3 in games decided by 10 points or less, with each of its last six games - four wins - decided by eight points or less. With a team that finished 11th in the conference in both rushing offense and rushing defense, ninth in total offense and 10th in total defense, it's not a stretch to say that the team overachieved in winning seven games.
No longer armed with the element of surprise, the Gamecocks will be challenged to post back-to-back winning seasons and consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since the 2000 and 2001 campaigns in the always deep and competitive SEC.
Although the 2005 team was considered a "young" team by many, the Gamecocks must overcome the loss of 14 starters, including a pair in cornerback Johnathan Joseph and All-American safety Ko Simpson, who took their talents to the NFL, despite having college eligibility remaining. Coach Spurrier and his staff must rebuild an offensive line and will have new faces virtually everywhere on the defensive side of the ball. They must also replace Josh Brown, who handled both the punting and placekicking chores a year ago.
The strength of the 2006 team will be in the offensive skill positions, where Carolina returns its starting quarterback in Blake Mitchell, pre-season All-American wide receiver in Sidney Rice and a solid one-two running back tandem in Mike Davis and Cory Boyd. The defense will feature an All-America candidate in cornerback Fred Bennett.
After one season in Columbia, Coach Spurrier tweaked his coaching staff during the off-season, naming Ron Cooper as Assistant Head Coach and secondary coach and turning the full-time defensive coordinator reigns over to Tyrone Nix. Nix will also instruct the inside linebackers. In addition, Fred Chatham was hired from Duke to work with the tight ends and special teams, former Gamecock assistant Brad Lawing makes his way back to Columbia from North Carolina to oversee the defensive line and Robert Gillespie begins his first season as the running backs coach. Dave Wommack moves from secondary coach to work with the outside linebackers, while assistant quarterbacks coach David Reaves was given the additional duties of recruiting coordinator. John Hunt (offensive line) and Steve Spurrier, Jr. (wide receivers) retain their same positions from the 2005 staff.
To "win more than they lose," the first goal that Coach Spurrier ascribes to, the Gamecocks must weave their way through a schedule that features seven home games and their first three conference tilts on national television.
The Gamecocks open the 2006 campaign with an SEC road test at Mississippi State on Aug. 31. Carolina's first trip to Starkville since the 2001 season will be a Thursday night special, carried by ESPN.
The 2006 home opener is set for Sept. 9 when the Georgia Bulldogs come calling. UGA leads the all-time series 43-13-2, but the Gamecocks gave the Bulldogs all they wanted in Athens last fall before falling, 17-15. ESPN again will be on hand for that contest. The Georgia game also represents the first of four straight home contests for the Gamecocks.
Carolina steps out of conference for back-to-back home games against Wofford and Florida Atlantic on Sept. 16 and 23, respectively, before resuming league play with another Thursday night special against Auburn. The ESPN cameras will again be at Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 28 when the Tigers come calling for the first time since 1997. The Auburn contest is the first of six-straight SEC matchups for USC.
After playing four home games in the month of September, USC is home just one time during the month of October. Back-to-back conference road games are set for Oct. 7 and 21 at Kentucky and Vanderbilt, respectively, with an off week scheduled for Oct. 14.
The squad returns to Columbia for a pair of SEC showdowns, first against Tennessee on Oct. 28, then versus Arkansas on Nov. 4. Carolina posted road wins at those two schools in 2005 and will be prepared to face teams with redemption in their hearts.
Speaking of redemption, no team may be looking for it more than the Florida Gators, when Carolina travels to Gainesville on Nov. 11. Not only did USC hand Florida a surprising 30-22 defeat last season, that contest will mark the much-anticipated return of Steve Spurrier, Florida's 1966 Heisman Trophy winner and coach of the Gator's 1996 National Championship team. After wrapping up SEC play in Florida, the Gamecocks finish the regular season with a pair of non-conference matchups. The home finale is set for Nov. 18 against Middle Tennessee and former assistant coach Rick Stockstill, who is now in charge of the Blue Raiders. The season finale is the annual clash with in-state rival Clemson, set for Death Valley over Thanksgiving weekend.
If the Gamecocks can stay healthy, especially with their key offensive returnees, and with the Head Ball Coach's magic touch, a top-25 finish is a realistic goal in 2006.
The Gamecocks will put their offense in the capable hands of junior signal-caller Blake Mitchell. Mitchell was named the starter early in the fall of 2005 and was never challenged for the position. He finished the campaign by completing 186-of-315 passes (59.0 percent) for 2,370 yards, the seventh-highest single season total in school history. Mitchell threw for 17 touchdowns and was intercepted a dozen times, but six of those picks came in the final two games. After working hard to add some size to his frame in the off-season and with another spring and summer with Coach Spurrier under his belt, Mitchell is poised for a banner season in 2006.
Redshirt freshman Cade Thompson figures to provide the most competition for Mitchell this fall. Thompson had an excellent showing in the spring game and throws a very catchable ball. Like Mitchell, Thompson has been asked to add some weight to his 6-2 frame. Should Mitchell get injured or struggle, Coach Spurrier has indicated he has the confidence in Thompson to get the job done.
Senior walk-on Brett Nichols and redshirt freshman Tommy Beecher figure to battle it out with highly-touted incoming freshman Chris Smelley for the No. 3 role. Nichols is a veteran in the program while Beecher is one of the most intelligent players on the squad. Although admittedly tough for a true freshman to compete in the SEC, Coach Spurrier has not dismissed Smelley's chances of seeing some early playing time. The Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Alabama was ranked as the No. 8 pro-style quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com and is regarded as having all the intangibles to be a successful collegiate quarterback.
A wild card who could figure into the quarterback mix is utilityman Syvelle Newton. Newton saw limited action at quarterback in 2005, completing 4-of-5 passes, after working extensively at the position in 2004. He has completed over 54 percent of his passes (75-for-138) for 1,158 yards with eight touchdowns in his collegiate career.
Despite the expectation that teams coached by Steve Spurrier will put the ball in the air more often than not, the Gamecocks' head coach feels strongly about the potential of this year's group of running backs. With what figures to be one of the deepest and most talented positions on the field, look for Carolina to show significant improvement in its running game.
The Gamecocks should be able to keep a pair of fresh legs on the field at all times with the one-two tailback tandem of junior Cory Boyd and returning starter sophomore Mike Davis. Boyd sat out last season, but looked like he had not missed a beat in the spring. He rushed for 541 yards in his first two seasons in Columbia and should easily surpass that total this season alone. He is also vey capable of catching the ball out of the backfield and has the ability to break a tackle and go the distance from anywhere on the field. Davis struggled throughout the early part of the 2005 season as a true freshman, but came on strong at the end, posting back-to-back 100-yard rushing days against Clemson and Missouri. Knowing that Boyd would be returning, Davis did not concede the starting role in the spring, and in fact thrived, earning the Joe Morrison Award winner as the Offensive Player of the Spring.
Sophomore scatback Bobby Wallace showed flashes last season of being a big play threat and is capable of spelling Boyd and Davis. He was the first player signed at Carolina by Head Coach Steve Spurrier and was the opening day starter in 2005 against UCF as a true freshman.
The Gamecocks will miss the toughness and leadership of Daccus Turman, but Lanard Stafford, a converted offensive lineman, is a solid blocker from the fullback position.
Redshirt freshman Taylor Rank was hampered by injuries for much of the 2005 season and could be a factor if he can remain healthy this fall. True freshman Clark Gaston graduated from high school early and joined the squad for the spring practice session. He could see some early playing time at fullback. Bryan Kingrey adds depth to the squad.
As was the case at quarterback, Syvelle Newton could work his way into some playing time at tailback.
While the Gamecocks may try to keep the ball on the ground more in 2006, it won't be because of a lack of talent in the receiving corps.
No conversation about the Carolina receivers can begin without the mention of first-team All-SEC performer and All-American candidate Sidney Rice. Rice broke nearly every imaginable record at USC during his redshirt freshman campaign of 2005, hauling in 70 passes for 1,143 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns. He capped off his incredible season with a 12-catch, 191-yard receiving game against Missouri in the Independence Bowl. While Rice will not rest on his laurels, his numbers will be hard to duplicate, as every defensive coordinator will gameplan to slow down the Gamecock standout.
The primary beneficiary of the focus that will be placed on Rice is sophomore Kenny McKinley. Playing opposite Rice, McKinley came on strong during the 2005 campaign, catching 25 passes for 291 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown reception at Arkansas that proved to be the game-winner. A former prep quarterback who had never played wide receiver prior to the 2005 season, McKinley could put up big numbers in the Carolina offense in 2006 after gaining a year of experience and adding some size and strength to his frame.
Senior Noah Whiteside could again be the Gamecocks' deep threat as he is now a full year removed from a broken ankle sustained in the 2005 spring game. The ankle and other foot injuries kept him from being at his best in 2005, but now he looks to make an impact in his final collegiate campaign. The wild card among the skill position players is senior Syvelle Newton. Newton was used at wide receiver, running back and quarterback in 2005 before suffering a season-ending torn Achilles' tendon. He missed the spring session while continuing his rehab program, but appears on pace to be ready for the start of the 2006 season. If he is at 100 percent, look for Coach Spurrier to find a number of ways to get the ball into his playmaker's hands.
Mike West, the team's top returning tackler, made a successful transition from the defensive side of the ball to wide receiver in the spring. One of the team's fastest players, West is very athletic and is more than willing to provide a downfield block.
Redshirt freshmen O.J. Murdock and Freddie Brown, along with walk-on Paul Haile will try to work their way into the rotation. Leon Gamble, Jamal Hayes and the Head Coach's son, Scott Spurrier, add depth to the unit. Murdock, who was a highly-regarded prep player in Florida, and Brown, who scored a touchdown in the spring game, are the most likely of the group to contribute in 2006.
Talented prospect Moe Brown joins the squad in the fall.
New assistant coach Fred Chatham had one of the thinner groups on the field during the spring session, but Carolina's new tight ends coach could have some depth to work with this fall if a couple of players can regain their health.
Senior Andy Boyd was lost to a knee injury early in the 2005 season and missed all of the spring. He has appeared in just 12 games over the past three seasons due to injuries, but figures to challenge for the starting role if he is healthy this fall. He has caught just two passes in his career, but both have gone for touchdowns.
Redshirt freshman Jared Cook slid down the line to tight end from the wide receiver position, got a long look in the spring and did not disappoint. With a 6-5 frame and good hands, Cook worked hard on his blocking in the spring. His skills could turn the tight ends unit, which caught just 11 passes a season ago, into more of a factor in the passing game this fall.
Juniors Robert Pavlovic and David Laggis both saw playing time last fall, but were used primarily as blockers. Pavlovic showed some improvement in his pass-catching abilities and gained a better understanding of the position after splitting most of the reps in the spring with Cook. Laggis was held out of the spring while recovering from a fractured wrist that was surgically repaired. His tight end experience is limited, as he has spent part of his collegiate career on the defensive side of the ball.
Walk-on Alex McGrath adds depth to the tight end position.
The biggest question marks for the Gamecocks' offense in 2006 will come along the offensive line. Three-fifths of the 2005 starting lineup will need to be replaced and line coach John Hunt had a thin group to work with in the spring. However, reinforcements are on the way, as Carolina recruited eight offensive lineman, including seven true freshmen, who will step foot on campus this fall. How quickly some of them can adapt to big-time collegiate football could be the answer to USC's offensive effectiveness this fall.
Senior center Chris White and junior right tackle Jamon Meredith have the most experience and figure to have two of the spots nailed down entering the fall. White is a Rimington Award candidate and has made 28 career starts, most among the returning players. Meredith took over the right tackle position during the second half of the 2005 season and has been solid.
Everything else will be up for grabs this fall. Junior William Brown started each of the first four games of the 2005 season before suffering a back injury that cost him the remainder of the season. If he is healthy, he projects as the starter at right guard.
Former walk-on Thomas Coleman is penciled in as the starter at left guard. He earned the Steve Sisk Outstanding Blocker Award in the spring and has earned a scholarship. He will be pushed by junior James Thompson, who made a trio of starts in 2005.
Sophomore Gurminder Thind will get the first shot at the important left tackle position. He was regarded as the Most Improved Offensive Lineman in the spring, but will have to hold off a host of newcomers to get the nod at Mississippi State on Aug. 31.
Senior Seth Edwards made the transition to the offensive line in the spring after working on the defensive side over the past three years. He enters the fall as the number two left tackle. Sophomore center Jeremy Burgess, sophomore tackle Justin Sorensen and redshirt freshman guard Hardee Sanders have been in the program and will be asked to step up to contribute this fall.
Opportunities for playing time exist for the incoming freshmen and Coach Spurrier has indicated he would play those who are physically ready for the challenge and redshirt the rest. Those who figure in the mix include Garrett Anderson, Pierre Andrews, Heath Batchelor, Seaver Brown, Hutch Eckerson and Kevin Young.
The Gamecocks will feature many new faces on the defensive side of the football in 2006 after seeing the departure of seven starters and the move of another starter, Mike West, to wide receiver. The one area least affected by the attrition is along the defensive line. Although Carolina loses a handful of players who saw considerable playing time, they return six lettermen who also gained significant experience a year ago. New assistant coach Brad Lawing felt like the group made a lot of progress in the spring, but still have some work to do to reach their full potential. The competition for the starting roles will be intense this fall. Defensive tackle Marque Hall was named the Outstanding Defensive Lineman in the spring and figures to be an anchor in the middle of the line.
Junior defensive end Jordin Lindsey started the final nine games of the 2005 season and is regarded as the team's top pass rusher. He is expected to get the call at one defensive end position.
Junior Ryan Brown will compete with newcomer Casper Brinkley for the starting slot on the opposite end of Lindsey. Brown was a linebacker last season, while Brinkley, who's a twin of Carolina linebacker Jasper Brinkley, will is a highly-touted junior college transfer who will join the squad in the fall.
The nose tackle position will be manned by sophomore Nathan Pepper or junior Stanley Doughty. Pepper sits atop the depth chart entering the fall, but Doughty is the returning starter. Pepper had a solid spring and received the Carolina Hustle Award for his efforts, while Doughty, who plays with a flair, continues to battle weight and conditioning issues. If he comes into camp in shape and ready to play, he has the potential to be a force in the middle. Sophomore tackle Matt Raysor is another returning letterwinner who has just scratched the surface of his potential.
Joel Reaves, a junior college transfer from Georgia Military, enrolled at Carolina in January and went through the spring drills. He provides depth in the interior of the line. A pair of redshirt freshmen defensive ends, Kerry Bonds and Lemuel Jeanpierre, are making the adjustment to the collegiate game and, with a good summer and a strong early showing in the fall, could contribute this fall as well.
Three freshmen will get a chance to compete, including Terrence Campbell, Kenrick Ellis and Eric Norwood. A pair of walk-ons, James Green and Keron Rouse, joined the squad in the spring and provide much-needed depth.
The Gamecock linebacking corps takes on a vastly different look in 2006. Gone are the likes of Lance Laury, Ricardo Hurley, Terrell Davis and Dustin Lindsey, all of whom saw significant action in 2005. Youth will be served in the linebacker position, as walk-on Rahmel Walker is the only senior on the depth chart.
The Gamecocks hope to be strong in the middle of the field, and that responsibility falls on newcomer Jasper Brinkley. The junior college transfer and brother of USC defensive end Casper Brinkley, stepped foot on the Carolina campus in January and immediate positioned himself as the starter at the "Mike" position. At 6-2 and 250 pounds, he can be a physical presence on the field.
Sophomore Marvin Sapp is expected to get the call at the "Stinger" outside linebacker slot. He has the speed to blitz and cover and has a knack for finding the football. He enjoyed a productive spring and was selected as both the Outstanding Linebacker and the Joe Morrison Defensive Player of the Spring.
The starter at the "Wolf" linebacker position will be decided in the fall, with three candidates in the picture. Redshirt freshman Gerrod Sinclair is listed at the top of the depth chart entering the fall, but will be pushed by sophomore Dakota Walker and junior Cody Wells. Walker moves to linebacker after being an SEC All-Freshman pick at defensive end a year ago, while Wells is the most experienced of the returning `backers.
Junior Curtis Rice played in 10 games a year ago and is penciled in as the backup to Brinkley in the middle. Sophomore Yvan Banag saw considerable action last fall and will compete for work behind Sapp.
A pair of veterans, Greg Wright and Marcus Davis, along with walk-ons John Guerry and Cody Lucas, who both joined the squad in the spring, add depth. A pair of true freshmen, Rodney Paulk and Vandaral Shackleford, will get an opportunity to work their way into the rotation this fall.
The cornerback position took a hit with the early departure of Johnathan Joseph, who was a first round pick in the NFL draft, but Carolina should still be solid at the position this fall.
Look for senior Fred Bennett to be the leader, not only of the secondary, but of the entire defense. Bennett was an honorable mention all-league selection a year ago after intercepting three balls and breaking up 10 passes. He has seven picks over the past two seasons and is a pre-season first team all-league pick and a second-team All-America selection by The Sporting News.
Versatile sophomore Carlos Thomas enters the fall as the projected starter opposite Bennett. A gifted athlete, Thomas spent much of his true freshman season on the offensive side of the ball at wide receiver, but picked off a D.J. Shockley pass at Georgia in his limited time at corner.
Sophomore Stoney Woodson is the only other returning cornerback with playing experience. Woodson recovered a fumble in the end zone at Tennessee, which was a key play in USC's upset of the Volunteers. Redshirt freshman Jeremy Ware will push to get into the rotation, while walk-ons Nitron Stork, Aubrey McKay and Ranzino Valentine add depth.
True freshman Captain Munnerlyn, who has outstanding speed, could challenge for some early playing time.
Possibly the biggest individual hole on the squad to fill in 2006 will be replacing All-American Ko Simpson at the rover position. Simpson was far and away the top tackler on the squad last season, registering over 100 stops, and had a penchant for making the big play. With two years of college eligibility remaining, he elected to take his wares to the next level and was a fourth round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. Free safety Tremaine Tyler graduated, leaving both safety positions wide open.
Senior free safety Brandon Isaac and junior rover Chris Hampton are penciled in as the starters entering the fall. Isaac has experience at both the cornerback and safety positions. He was hampered by an injured shoulder last fall and was limited some in the spring, but should be at full speed this fall. Hampton made five starts early in the 2005 season, but was bothered by an ankle injury during the season's second half. Like Isaac, he should be at 100 percent at the beginning of fall camp.
Junior free safety Ty Erving and senior rover Jerod June enter the fall listed as the second team safeties behind Isaac and Hampton, respectively. both earned letters last fall, but saw limited action in the secondary. Redshirt freshman Damien Wright will push to get into the mix at safety. Belcher did not compete last fall, but joined the squad in time for the practices leading up to the bowl game. Wright moved to safety from linebacker in the spring and could move back as the coaches experiment as to where he fits best. Walk-on Douglas Peterson adds depth.
A quartet of newcomers could make an immediate impact at the safety position. Gamecock coaches feel good about the athleticism and potential that Emanuel Cook, Chris Hail, Nick Prochak and Darian Stewart bring to the secondary.
Like the Carolina defense, the Gamecock special teams will have a completely different look this season. The departure of Josh Brown, who capably handled both the punting and placekicking work, opens the door for someone to step up.
Sophomore Ryan Succup, who handled the kickoff chores as a true freshman last fall, will get the first opportunity to handle all three kicking duties in 2006. Blessed with a strong leg, Succop is capable of doing a solid job, but needs to gain consistency to be the weapon he is capable of becoming.
Several placekickers have been waiting in the wings for Brown to graduate and will push Succop for the starting nod. Thomas Hooper and Jordan Dodds figure to get the first shot, while Charlie Carpenter and Josh Epps could figure in the competition as well.
The snapping duties are in the experienced hands of deep snapper Ike Crofoot and short snapper Scott Morgan. The uniquely talented Crofoot also is the holder on extra point and field goal attempts. Nathan Pepper can deep snap as well, while Drew Snelling adds depth.
The Gamecocks would like to see more production from the kick return units this season. A host of candidates could be deep on kickoff returns, including Carlos Thomas, Mike West, Bobby Wallace and Noah Whiteside. Kenny McKinley, who averaged 4.6 yards per return last fall, is the likely punt returner.
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