Football Spring Preview
In 2005 it was defeating Tennessee for the first time ever in Knoxville and knocking off Florida for the first time since the 1930s, while winning a school record five-straight SEC games. In 2006 it was winning the last three games of the season for the first time since 1973, including a victory at Clemson for the first time since 1996 and a Liberty Bowl triumph over Conference USA champion Houston. Carolina also came within one point of upsetting Florida in "The Swamp" for the first time ever.
Now the challenge is to keep that momentum moving forward. Since 2003, Carolina has increased its victory total by one each season - winning five times in 2003, six games in 2004, seven in 2005 and eight games last season. To keep that streak in tact, the Gamecocks will have to go where few have gone before. Carolina has won nine games in a season just twice in its 113-year history - posting a school-record 10 wins in 1984 and nine victories in 2001.
The Gamecocks appear poised and capable of making a strong push towards the upper echelon of the always-loaded Southeastern Conference. Carolina returns 54 letterwinners, losing just 12, and returns 16 of 22 starters, along with punter/placekicker Ryan Succop. The task will not be an easy one, as the Gamecocks will have to sojourn through a gauntlet of conference road games at Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas, along with a home date with defending national champion Florida.
The trek begins with 15 spring practices scheduled from March 20 to April 14.
The South Carolina Gamecocks will look to pick up in 2007 right where they left off at the end of the 2006 season on the offensive side of the ball. The Gamecocks accumulated over 400 yards of offense in each of their final four games, including 410 against eventual national champion Florida, 492 against Clemson, and 512 versus Houston in a Liberty Bowl win. With the return of many of the skill position players, including fifth-year senior quarterback Blake Mitchell, and most of those players now in their third year in Head Coach Steve Spurrier's system, the Gamecocks have the potential to be an explosive offensive team in 2007.
QUARTERBACK: The Gamecock offense is in the capable hands of Blake Mitchell. Mitchell, a seasoned veteran, finished the 2006 season as strong as just about any signal-caller in the country. Over the last 18 quarters, Mitchell completed 102-of-147 passes (69.4 percent) for 1,789 yards with 10 touchdowns. He enters the 2007 season as the top SEC quarterback in career completion percentage (61.2 percent) and ranks seventh in the Carolina record books with 4,245 passing yards. While Mitchell appears to have a lock on the starting job, competition for the number two quarterback role will be one that is watched closely this spring. Sophomore Tommy Beecher finished the 2006 season second on the depth chart and has the advantage of having the most experience of the backup candidates under Coach Spurrier's watch. Second-year quarterback Chris Smelley was highly-regarded when he came on campus in the fall of 2006 and quickly worked his way up the depth chart to become the number two quarterback when the season opened. He saw action in each of the season's first two games, completing 6-of-15 passes for 112 yards while showing a maturity well beyond his years, but suffered a heel injury and spent the rest of the campaign getting limited reps in practice. He has petitioned the NCAA for a medical redshirt season. Michael McQueeney is an interesting walk-on story. He played as a freshman at Western Carolina before deciding to try his hand at Division I football. He worked with the Gamecocks' scout team in 2006 while sitting out the season as a transfer.
TAILBACK: The Gamecocks have talent, experience and depth at the tailback position. Senior Cory Boyd and junior Mike Davis both return after splitting most of the carries in 2006. Boyd is a hard-nosed runner who is tough to bring down by one tackler, while Davis seems to get stronger as the season goes along, as he has had his best games at the end of each of the last two seasons. Boyd, who is a candidate for all-league consideration, rushed for a career-high 823 yards and eight touchdowns in 2006 and has gained 1,364 rushing yards in his career. Davis has over 1,100 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in his first two seasons in the Garnet & Black. Junior Bobby Wallace and sophomore Taylor Rank both have shown flashes of ability when given the opportunity. Wallace's best game came against Middle Tennessee when he carried just three times but gained 98 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown burst, the fourth-longest run in school history and the longest since 1991. Rank was forced into the starting role last season against Florida Atlantic and responded with a 100-yard rushing day in his only career start. Walk-on Calvin Parks adds depth.
FULLBACK: The Gamecocks primarily use their fullbacks to block, rather than carry the pigskin, and have several candidates more than capable of doing just that. Senior Lanard Stafford, a former walk-on lineman, returns as the starter at fullback. He has never taken a handoff in a game, but did catch three passes last season, including two in the bowl win over Houston. Fifth-year senior Ryan Brown makes the transition from defensive end to fullback this spring. Brown started eight games on the defensive side of the ball last year, but will get an opportunity to contribute on the offensive side this season. Walk-on Bryan Kingrey made one start last season and is a quality backup. Clark Gaston graduated from high school early and made a positive impression while going through spring drills a year ago, but missed the 2006 season with injury. He looks to regain his health and get back into the mix for playing time this year. Jim Hutton is a walk-on fullback who has good size, weighing in at over 250 pounds.
WIDE RECEIVER: The biggest hole the Gamecocks will need to fill in 2007 is the loss of wide receiver Sidney Rice, who elected to take his talents to the NFL despite having two years of eligibility remaining. In just two seasons in the Gamecock Garnet & Black, Rice rewrote nearly all of the school records for receiving. Despite the loss, the Gamecocks are not without talent at wide receiver. Junior Kenny McKinley, who proved to be a worthy weapon playing opposite of Rice, is the top returning receiver. McKinley caught 51 passes a year ago for 880 yards, including a pair of 43-yard, fourth quarter touchdown passes to seal the bowl win over Houston. Junior college transfer Larry Freeman will get the first shot at replacing Rice. Freeman showed his athleticism last season when, not unlike Syvelle Newton did for the Gamecocks in 2006, he was asked to play quarterback for four games at Pearl River Community College. With a slew of talented wide receivers slated to join the squad in the fall, this spring will be especially important for the other returning wideouts to establish themselves as dependable Division I receivers. Sophomore Freddie Brown stepped up towards the end of last season, catching all 14 of his passes in the final five games. Speedster Moe Brown is another sophomore who saw some playing time as a true freshman in 2006. He has the capability of being the Gamecocks' deep threat. Senior Mike West showed flashes of his exceptional tools last season in his first year at wide receiver, but was hampered much of the season by hamstring injuries. With a full year at the position under his belt and an injury-free campaign, he could prove to be a solid contributor in 2007. Four walk-ons round out the returning wide receiving corps, including Leon Gamble, Paul Haile, Kris Mizell and Scott Spurrier.
TIGHT END: The Gamecocks return all of their tight ends from the 2006 season. Andy Boyd was granted a sixth-year of eligibility and figures to be the top threat after earning second team all-league honors by the Associated Press last season. He has been hampered throughout his career by injury and could miss much of the spring drills after undergoing shoulder surgery, but hopes to be healthy this fall and put together one final solid campaign. Robert Pavlovic has continued to improve and has gained more experience with increased playing time. Jared Cook is the most athletic of the tight ends. A sophomore, Cook saw action at both tight end and at wide receiver last season, catching six passes for 113 yards, an average of 18.8 yards per catch. David Laggis is another veteran player who has battled injuries and has moved around some during his USC career but seems to have found a home at tight end. Walk-on Alex McGrath provides depth at the position and earned a letter last season for his work on special teams. Foxy Foxworth was a preferred walk-on to the squad last fall and took a redshirt season. He provides depth to the position.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The bad news is that the Gamecocks and coach John Hunt will have to revamp their offensive line this spring after losing the three interior starters, center Chris White and guards Thomas Coleman and Seth Edwards. The good news is that, unlike the first two seasons of Coach Spurrier's tenure, there are plenty of candidates from which to choose, including seven players who have been in the starting lineup for the Gamecocks. The linchpin of the line is left tackle Jamon Meredith. Meredith, a fourth-year junior, is an all-league candidate who made the transition from right tackle to left tackle midway through the 2006 campaign. The other returning starter is right tackle Justin Sorensen. Sorensen, the biggest of the USC offensive linemen at 6-7, 323, started the final six games of the 2006 season. Seniors William Brown and James Thompson will get the first opportunities to win jobs at center and right guard, respectively. Brown has made seven career starts, including three in 2006, while Thompson has started three times in his career. Junior Gurminder Thind, who started the first two games of the 2006 season at left tackle before suffering a season-ending foot injury, is expected to be back at full strength and ready to work his way back into the mix. Junior Matt Raysor, who split the 2006 season working both sides of the ball, appears to be in line to compete for playing time at the left guard position, while junior Jeremy Burgess could factor in at the center position. The bulk of the remaining scholarship lineman are second-year players, some of whom saw playing time in 2006 while others used a redshirt season. Local product Garrett Anderson started four games as a true freshman last fall and figures to get the first shot at the starting left guard position. Classmate Hutch Eckerson made five starts at right tackle in 2006 and is expected to push Sorensen for playing time. A quartet of redshirt freshmen including guards Pierre Andrews, Kevin Young and Seaver Brown and tackle Heath Batchelor, all came in with strong credentials and now will try to make a solid impression on the field. Ryan Broadhead spent last fall as a "greyshirt" after signing with the Gamecocks in the spring of 2006 and spent the season in the weightroom. A strong spring could propel him into the mix in the middle of the offensive line, possibly at center. Sophomore walk-on Hardee Sanders had a good off-season and will add depth the unit.
Expect South Carolina to field its best defense in the Steve Spurrier Era in 2007. With rising star Tyrone Nix coordinating the defense, the Gamecocks showed vast improvement from 2005 to 2006, reducing their points allowed per game from 23.2 to 18.7, while cutting down on their total yards allowed from 360.8 per game to just 336.8 per contest. With 30 returning lettermen on the defensive side of the ball including 10 returning starters and the loss of just three letterwinners, the Gamecocks have more talent and depth than they've had in recent memory. Competition for playing time should contribute to a spirited spring practice.
DEFENSIVE LINE: The Gamecocks will make a concerted effort to improve on stopping the run after finishing 75th in the country in rushing defense a year ago. Defensive line coach Brad Lawing has several returning candidates who were regulars in the rotation a year ago, and will welcome several highly-touted newcomers as well. In the interior of the line, Marque Hall may be limited this spring but looks to get back to full strength by the time fall camp rolls around. He arguably was the Gamecocks best interior defender a year ago, but was limited to just two games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Junior Nathan Pepper is penciled in as the starter at nose tackle after making a dozen starts last season. Senior Joel Reaves and sophomore Lemuel Jeanpierre both saw significant playing time last season and should figure into the rotation again in 2007. Redshirt freshman Kenrick Ellis has slimmed down some but still weighs in at a team-high 327 pounds on a 6-5 frame and figures to be a run stopper in the middle. Redshirt freshman Terrence Campbell missed all of last season with a knee injury. Ladi Ajiboye spent the 2006 season at Hargrave Military and enrolled at Carolina in January. Senior Jordin Lindsey leads the returning cast at the defensive end position. Lindsey was the Outstanding Defensive Player of the Game in the 2006 Liberty Bowl win over Houston. He has made 15 career starts, including the final five of the `06. Freshman All-American Eric Norwood tied for the team lead with 7.0 sacks last season and could move into the school's career Top-10 list for sacks with another strong campaign this fall. A trio of January enrollees will push Lindsey and Norwood for playing time. Jonathan Williams is a junior college transfer from Mississippi Delta C.C. Clifton Geathers, who was a teammate of Ajiboye's at Hargrave Military, has the look of an SEC-caliber athlete at 6-7 and 270 pounds. Travian Robertson graduated from high school early to have an opportunity to learn in the spring in hopes of early playing time this fall.
LINEBACKER: The stalwart of the Gamecock defense is in the middle with senior middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley. Brinkley recorded a team-high 107 tackles last season, including 85 solo stops. A 2006 first-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press, Brinkley should be on most everyone's pre-season All-America watch list in 2007. Opposing quarterbacks may think they're seeing double when they look across the line of scrimmage and see Casper Brinkley lined up next to his twin brother. Casper played defensive end for the Gamecocks in 2006 and tied for the team lead with 7.0 sacks, but will get a chance to play weakside linebacker this spring. Sophomore Rodney Paulk returns as the starter at the strong side linebacker spot. Paulk garnered second team Freshman All-America accolades by The Sporting News and was a consensus Freshman All-SEC selection after starting 10 of the 13 games. Juniors Yvan Banag and Marvin Sapp are running second on the depth chart behind Casper Brinkley and Paulk, respectively. Banag started the final two games of the 2006 season, while Sapp started three games and was the team's second-leading tackler in 2006. Junior middle linebacker Dustin Lindsey, the twin brother of Gamecock defensive end Jordin Lindsey, looks to get back into the mix after sitting out the 2006 season. He will compete with sophomore Vandaral Shackleford for duty behind Jasper Brinkley. Seniors Cody Wells and Curtis Rice are both three-year letterwinners who add quality depth and experience to the linebacking corps. Wells is coming off a biceps injury that ended his 2006 season prematurely. After an up-and-down season, junior Dakota Walker will look to get back on track after earning SEC All-Freshman honors in 2005. Senior Greg Wright and sophomore Gerrod Sinclair each earned his first letter last season and, along with sophomore Damien Wright, add depth at the outside linebacker positions. Walk-ons Marcus Davis and John Guerry round out the roster.
CORNERBACK: The Gamecocks have to replace just one starter on the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Fred Bennett. Juniors Carlos Thomas and Stoney Woodson started 10 and nine games, respectively, last season and sophomore Captain Munnerlyn also started five contests, giving Carolina a trio of experienced corners. Woodson, who led the team with three interceptions last season, can also play at the safety position. Thomas and Munnerlyn each had two picks a year ago. Sophomore Chris Hail saw limited time in the secondary last fall. He and senior walk-on Aubrey McKay add depth. Senior Ranzino Valentine fills out the roster.
SAFETY: Playing time for the Gamecocks' two safety positions will be up for grabs in 2007. Senior Brandon Isaac, who missed the entire 2006 season after undergoing shoulder surgery, returns to action and is an early favorite to be the starting free safety. Sophomore Emanuel Cook is penciled in as the pre-spring starter at strong safety. Cook earned Freshman All-SEC honors in 2006 after starting five contests. Regarded as one of the team's best tacklers, Cook was the only true freshman on the squad to start the season opener at Mississippi State. Veteran Chris Hampton started 11 games in 2006 and has made 16 career starts. Although not as gifted athletically as the other safeties, Hampton plays intelligently and has served as the quarterback for the defense. He has the ability to play at either safety position. Sophomore Darian Stewart got his first taste of Division I football last fall and figures to work his way into the mix more this season. Veteran Ty Erving could factor in at free safety after missing the entire 2006 season with an injury. Redshirt freshman Nick Prochak and walk-ons Douglas Peterson and Mike Newton add depth to the squad.
SPECIAL TEAMS For the second straight season, the Gamecocks were solid but not spectacular in special teams in 2006. Coach Spurrier has tried to address that in the off-season, bringing in Shane Beamer to co-coordinate the special teams areas along with holdover Fred Chatham. In addition, Coach Spurrier indicated that he would take a more active role in the special teams area this season.
PLACEKICKER: The Gamecocks have one of the nation's top returning placekickers in junior Ryan Succop. Succop, who has been blessed with a big leg, was a Groza Award semi-finalist last season in his first year as a regular placekicker. He was accurate on 16-of-20 field goal attempts, including 6-of-7 from between 30 and 39 yards, 6-of-9 from 40 to 49 yards and 2-of-4 from 50 yards or beyond. He was a second-team All-SEC selection by the league's coaches. Two of his four misses were blocked, while another hit the upright. He boomed a career-long 55-yarder against Vanderbilt, then had another 55-yarder taken off the board at Florida due to a penalty. Senior Thomas Hooper is the backup behind Succop. The biggest challenge on the placekicking team is replacing short snapper Scott Morgan and holder Ike Crofoot. That tandem worked together for the past few seasons. Nathan Pepper and walk-on Charles Turner figure to be the top candidates for the snapping duties, while Tommy Beecher will be an early favorite to be the holder.
PUNTER: Ryan Succop handled the punting chores in addition to the placekicking duties a season ago and figures to do both again this season. Succop averaged 43.7 yards per punt, but had just 30 opportunities, the second fewest in Division I football. Walk-ons Spencer Lanning and Nate Spurrier hope to have a big spring to be able to challenge Succop for the punting duties in the fall.
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