Five Questions For The Season Opener
#5. How will the new-look special teams perform?
A new era of South Carolina special teams will take the field on Thursday night against Mississippi State. Not only did the Gamecocks lose Josh Brown, the starting place kicker and punter from 2005, but they hired a new Special Teams Coach in Fred Chatham this offseason. Chatham, who spent the last 17 years as an assistant coach at Duke, specializes in teaching the art of special teams play, and the Gamecocks will receive their first glimpse at the product of his tutelage this Thursday. Sophomore kicker Ryan Succop possesses a powerful leg, but he will be put to the test against Mississippi State, as he will be asked to handle kickoff duties, place kicking, and punting. The Gamecocks are also looking to improve in both their kickoff and punt return games this season. Carlos Thomas is the second leading returning kickoff return man in the SEC heading into this season, but with the loss of Jon Joseph, the Gamecocks will need someone to step up to complement Thomas on returns. Kenny McKinley served as the Gamecocks primary punt return man as a true freshman last season, and after stiff competition in both the spring and fall camp, he appears to have maintained the punt return duties. As is often the case in early season games, special teams may play an important factor in the outcome of Thursday's contest, and it will be interesting to see how the Gamecocks new-look special teams perform when the pressure is on.
#4. Which receivers will step up to complement Sidney Rice?
All-SEC wide receiver Sidney Rice established himself as one of the top wide receivers in the nation last season, but at times the Gamecocks relied too much on his talents. Quarterback Blake Mitchell shoulders some of that blame, but when Syvelle Newton was lost to injury for the rest of the season against Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks lacked quality receivers to complement Rice. Assuming that Rice will brave a shoulder injury and play on Thursday night, the Gamecocks are hoping that players like Kenny McKinley, Moe Brown, O.J. Murdock, and a healthy Syvelle Newton will step up and become quality secondary options in the passing game.
#3 How will the young players respond to the hostile road environment?
There is no denying that the Gamecocks will field a talented team this year, but with that said, it will be one of the youngest teams in recent memory. The depth chart currently shows 22 freshmen and sophomores on the two deep, including multiple players who will be seeing their first game action at the college level. It will be interesting to watch how these young players respond to the road game environment at Mississippi State, and more importantly, how they respond to the adversity that likely awaits them in this contest.
#2. Will the Gamecocks be able to stop the run?
One year ago, the Gamecocks were consistently plagued by the inability to stop the run. In fact, the Gamecocks surrendered an average of 174.2 yards per game in 2005, which ranked 85th in the nation. However, after showing signs of progress throughout both the spring and fall camp under new Defensive Line Coach Brad Lawing, there is reason to be optimistic about an improved run defense this season. The defensive front, led by junior defensive tackle Marque Hall, is expected to be better this year, and the defense will be breaking in a new but more athletic trio of starting linebackers this season. The Gamecocks will get their first test on Thursday night, and they will compete against a relatively unknown Mississippi State rushing attack. The Bulldogs return three starters along the offensive line from a year ago, but they lost talented tailback Jerious Norwood to graduation. In essence, both sides of this comparison are unknown entering into this match up, but the team which can impose their will on the other will ultimately put themselves in good position to succeed.
#1. How will the offensive line perform against Mississippi State‘s talented defensive front?
It is no secret that South Carolina has a wealth of offensive skill players this season, but the offensive line, which is relatively young in experience, will face a stiff challenge from the talented Bulldog defensive front on Thursday night. The Gamecock offensive line has looked solid at times in fall camp, but they have lacked consistency. The production from this unit, in both run and pass blocking, will ultimately play an important role in the outcome of the game. One player in particular to watch on Thursday night will be redshirt sophomore Gurminder Thind, the Gamecocks starting left tackle. Thind will be making his first career start, and although he has gained the reputation of being the team's best pass blocker in practice, he will be asked to work through the nerves and carry the load from the left tackle spot against Mississippi State.
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