Five Early Questions For Spring Practice
1. Who will replace Sidney Rice?
No one player on the Gamecock roster can replace the high-flying Rice. However, going into next season, the Gamecocks have the potential to be a deeper unit at wide receiver. 4-star JUCO product Larry Freeman will join USC in the spring, and the Gamecock coaching staff hopes he can break into the starting lineup early. All other new wide receivers will come in during the summer, and they will be given every opportunity to earn early playing time, but the most likely newcomer to make an immediate impact is Freeman.
At the same time, the coaches are hoping that USC's young crop of returning receivers, including Freddie Brown, Jared Cook, Moe Brown, and Mike West, will have solid offseasons and be ready to contribute next season. With Kenny McKinley locked in as the new #1 option, Blake Mitchell should have no problem finding talent to throw to, but it would be nice if Freeman and Mitchell got comfortable with each other as soon as possible.
2. Which newcomers will make an impact?
The Gamecocks will have seven newcomers enrolling this spring, including the aforementioned Freeman, cornerback Addison Williams, quarterback Stephen Garcia, defensive end Travian Robertson, offensive lineman Ryan Broadhead, and defensive tackles Ladi Ajiboye and Jonathan Williams. 4-star prep school transfer Clifton Geathers is also expected to join the Gamecocks in the spring, but he has yet to make his intentions public.
With these players having the opportunity to take part in spring practice, they will get a head start on the rest of the newcomers, who will join the Gamecocks in the summer. Several of them of them are expected to make an immediate impact, but the question is who? Personally, I believe Williams, Ajiboye, and Geathers will make some noise on the defensive line, but look for the athletic Freeman to have the biggest immediate impact, as he will join a young receiving corp. Broadhead, Williams, and Robertson will also compete for spots on the two deep at their respective positions, while Garcia will fight an uphill battle in the quarterback competition.
3. How much will the secondary improve?
With the loss of Fred Bennett to graduation, the secondary may be the unit that needs to improve the most this offseason. Captain Munnerlyn has one corner position locked down, and if Emanuel Cook stays at safety, he'll likely be set there. However, the other corner and safety position are wide open. At corner, returning starter Carlos Thomas, sophomore Chris Hail and incoming freshman Addison Williams will battle hard for the job. I'd like to see Stoney Woodson move back permanently to corner, and in the fall, look for Jamire Williams to factor into the rotation as well. Someone out of this group needs to step up and hopefully it won't come down to choosing the best of the average.
At safety, many believe when Mark Barnes arrives this summer, he'll win the other safety job. However, the Gamecocks have a couple other options who have more experience, and this spring practice will be their opportunity to shine. Seniors Chris Hampton and Brandon Isaac are the two most likely candidates. Hampton has played several important snaps in his first three years, although he has never seemed to develop as well as the coaches would like. Isaac, on the other hand, enters the spring with high expectations. He sat out this past season with a nagging shoulder injury, but many believe he will be an impact player in the secondary. Sophomore Darian Stewart played a lot early last season, but watched from the sideline the rest of the way. If Stewart can learn to get off blocks better and be more decisive, he'll have a good chance to compete for the job.
Overall, the secondary played better than expected for much of the 2006 season, but this unit needs to show continued improvement if USC hopes to compete for an SEC East title next season.
4. Can USC find an offensive line they can settle on?
The inability to settle on a starting offensive line before the season started cost the Gamecocks some games early on in the 2006 season. If the Gamecocks can comfortably replace the three interior spots along the offensive line by the end of the spring, rather than taking the questions all the way into the fall, that will put this year‘s line ahead of last season‘s unit.
Whoever wins the jobs needs to have experience together. Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorenson return as the starting offensive tackles, but the middle of the line is wide open. Sophomore Garrett Anderson is the favorite to win one of the guard spots, while James Thompson and Kevin Young will likely battle it out for the other guard position. Senior Web Brown and newcomer Ryan Broadhead will compete for the starting center duties. If true freshmen Kyle Nunn and Quintin Richardson can crack the two-deep over the summer, that's great, however if this unit is as deep as I think it is, both will redshirt.
5. Where will Casper Brinkley play?
Casper Brinkley was the most consistent defensive end on the Gamecock roster this past season, but he could play a new position next year. With Jordin Lindsey and Eric Norwood having the ability to be starters next year, and a crop of young, talented defensive ends on the way, the USC coaching staff is toying with the idea of moving Casper to outside linebacker to play alongside his brother, Jasper Brinkley.
Cody Wells did a nice job at outside linebacker in 2006 before being injured, but the Gamecocks could use an upgrade. Instead of looking at other linebackers, Casper may be the best option, as he would bring more speed and bigger hitting to the unit.
The Gamecocks are hoping to challenge for the East in 2007, but upgrades like this are needed on defense to make that a reality. Everything has to fall into place before this move will be made, but the spring provides a perfect opportunity to experiment with the idea. If Travian Robertson has a solid spring, look for this move to continue into the fall.
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