Spring Recap: Life Without Sidney Rice
Sidney Rice was clutch. He was the Gamecocks go-to-receiver when it counted and a bona fide All-American that made the South Carolina offense click. He was the face of Steve Spurrier's Cock N' Fire offense and was on pace to shatter the career receiving records at USC before declaring for the 2007 NFL Draft after only his redshirt sophomore season. With his departure, though, what was once considered a strength of the Gamecock offense is now somewhat of a question mark.
Rising junior Kenny McKinley returns after his breakout 2006 campaign as USC's only proven receiving threat. McKinley, who is one of the best route runners in the SEC if not America, became USC's number one receiving option this spring and was a pillar of consistency on a unit that looked to him for leadership. The savvy junior, while not dynamic, has incredibly soft hands and is a slippery playmaker after the catch. He was quarterback Blake Mitchell's favorite target during the spring, and after totaling over 50 catches for 880 yards and 5 touchdowns a year ago, McKinley appears primed to have an All-SEC caliber season in 2007.
Caption: Kenny McKinley makes the grab during a spring workout.
Beyond McKinley, the Gamecocks will feature a youth movement at the wide receiver position. Sophomore speedster Moe Brown, who was on track to be a solid contributor last season before suffering a nagging ankle injury, was arguably USC's most improved receiver this spring. The 6'0", 180 pound Anderson, SC native served as Carolina's deep threat on offense throughout spring camp and developed a knack for coming down with acrobatic catches. Like any young receiver, Brown still needs to develop a better understanding of the offense and fine tune his route running technique, but he appears primed to see extensive action for the Gamecocks in the fall.
No receiver was talked about more this spring than redshirt sophomore Jared Cook. The 6'5", 236 pound Cook was timed running a ridiculous 4.37 second forty yard dash before the spring, and with a 40-inch vertical to his credit, the jumbo receiving target has all of the physical tools to develop into an elite playmaker in the Gamecock offense. However, he is not there just yet. After spending much of last season switching back and forth between tight end and wide receiver, Cook has yet to fully grasp the offensive playbook, and although he showed improved hands this spring, he must continue to work on consistently bringing the ball in. If Cook's work ethic is any indication, the Suwanee, GA native will reach his potential sooner than later, as he was rewarded with the Offensive Weight Room Effort Award this spring. With a good summer and continued progress in fall camp, Cook may very well become one of USC's primary playmakers on offense this season.
Caption: Jared Cook is honored with the Weight Room Effort Award at halftime of the Garnet and Black Game.
One player that will never steal the headlines but who will likely play an important role in the Gamecock offense this fall is redshirt sophomore Freddie Brown. The 6'2", 211 pound receiver came on strong at the end of last season, filling the role of the third receiving option in USC's passing attack. What Brown lacks in speed, he makes up for with precise route running and the ability to find the gaps in a zone defense. Brown closed the spring with a solid 4 catch, 30 yard performance in Saturday's Garnet and Black Game, including a couple of clutch first quarter receptions to move the chains on the Black Team‘s first scoring drive. The quiet but consistent Duncan, SC native will look to build on his 2006 success and continue his job of being the silent assassin in the Gamecocks' passing attack.
Highly touted JUCO transfer Larry Freeman arrived at USC in January with the reputation of being a big time receiver. The 6'2", 209 pound Freeman showed flashes of that ability during the spring but will still have a lot to prove when the fall arrives. Freeman's biggest obstacle was learning Spurrier's complicated offense, but with the spring now under his belt, he should have a better grasp on things when the fall comes around. Freeman is not a burner at wideout, but he provides a big receiving target that can go over the middle and make tough catches in traffic. He uncharacteristically dropped a couple of balls in the Garnet and Black Game, but soft hands had been one of his strong suits for most of the spring. If he can put it all together in the fall, Freeman will provide another solid possession receiver for the Gamecock offense.
Caption: Larry Freeman makes a difficult catch in traffic during a spring scrimmage.
With a wide receiver corp that Spurrier has openly stated lacks playmakers after the catch, rising senior Mike West is a player that possesses the speed and elusiveness to potentially be a big play threat in the Gamecock offense. The problem with West, a former linebacker, has always been his ability to hang onto the ball. The 6'0", 219 pound former junior college standout is a hard working player that showed some progress this spring, but until he can consistently catch the football, he won't reach his full potential.
The Gamecock receiver rotation will receive an infusion of young talent over the summer when what many consider to be the number one wide receiver class in America arrives on campus, and Spurrier is optimistic that this group can provide a dimension of playmaking ability that his current receivers lack. Scout.com 4-star rated prospects Chris Culliver and Matt Clements both possess the elite speed to potentially make an early impact at USC, while other highly touted receivers like Jason Barnes and Dion Lecorn could also figure into the rotation.
USC's wide receiver corp has the potential to be a deeper unit than they were a year ago when Rice and McKinley combined to generate most of the production. However, Coach Steve Spurrier Jr's group must continue to work hard this offseason, showing dedication in the weight room, studying the offense, and attending passing sessions to develop better chemistry with the quarterbacks. The Gamecocks will field a lot of young and relatively unproven talent at the receiver position in the fall, but the potential is there. After all, it wasn't long ago that a lanky, unheard of redshirt freshman donning the #4 jersey took the SEC by storm once coming into his own.
The tight end position is an area in the Gamecock offense that has rarely been utilized as a receiving threat, but Spurrier is working to change that. With returning starter Andy Boyd sidelined after offseason shoulder surgery and David Laggis leaving the team, that allowed former safety Nick Prochak to make the transition to tight end this spring. The 6'3", 226 pound redshirt freshman lacks the size of a typical tight end, but with a frame to add weight and a willingness to work hard, Prochak drew praise from Spurrier on multiple occasions during the spring for his progress. The 2006 signee, who totaled 3 catches for 32 yards in the Garnet and Black Game and was named the Most Improved Tight End of the spring, possesses surprisingly soft hands and has the athleticism to make plays after the catch. If Prochak can add some weight over the summer and pick up where he left off in the fall, he looks to see quality snaps in 2007.
Caption: Nick Prochak is recognized with the Most Improved Tight End Award during halftime of Saturday's Garnet and Black Game.
Rising senior Robert Pavlovic missed much of the spring with injury, but the 6'4", 255 pound blocking tight end is a solid run blocker and can slip underneath the defense for an occasional reception when on the field.
2007 signee Weslye Saunders, who has the size and athleticism at 6'5" and 270 pounds to compete right away, will also figure into the mix when the fall arrives.
With Boyd expected to return healthy in the fall, and young playmakers like Prochak and Saunders being added into the rotation, Gamecock fans can look for the tight end position to be utilized more in the passing game this fall.
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