Top Five Position Battles To Watch
I. Wide Receiver
With junior Kenny McKinley returning this season following his breakout campaign in 2006, the Gamecocks have a proven no. 1 option at the wide receiver position. However, after McKinley, things get interesting. With Sidney Rice's departure to the NFL, the rest of the two deep at wide receiver is up for grabs. Sophomore Freddie Brown is the next closest thing to a proven receiver, as he began to emerge in the second half of last season, recording 14 catches for 147 yards. However, Brown will have stiff competition to crack the two deep. Sophomore Moe Brown has shown flashes of potential and was arguably the second most consistent receiver during the spring behind McKinley. 4-star rated JUCO transfer Larry Freeman enrolled in January and had a rough spring camp, but he now has a better understanding of the offense heading into the fall and is expected to contend for serious playing time. Senior journeyman Mike West is one of the best athletes on the team, but his adjustment to the receiver position following the 2005 season has been a struggle.
Then there's the freshmen - USC welcomes in arguably the top wide receiver class in the country this fall, headlined by Jason Barnes and Chris Culliver. Barnes is a big, athletic receiving target that comes from an advanced passing offense at Charlotte's Independence High School. Culliver is a high school safety turned college receiver that has speed to burn, but still has a lot to learn about the wide receiver position. Joseph Hills is another highly touted newcomer, and he has drawn rave reviews during the summer workouts by displaying soft hands and boundless athleticism. Dion Lecorn and Matt Clements are both fast, physical receivers that will also compete to see the field this year.
With the handful of unproven, returning players competing with the talented newcomers this fall, the wide receiver position promises to be home to some of the best position battles on the team.
Sophomore Moe Brown showed flashes of potential last season, but he will need to take his game to the next level this fall in order to hold off some of the talented newcomers.
II. Offensive Guard
With Thomas Coleman and Seth Edwards graduating after last season, the Gamecocks are looking to find the best combination of players to replace them at the two starting guard spots in 2007 to avoid yet another slow start on the offensive line. Sophomore Garrett Anderson and Senior James Thompson worked with the first team line for much of the spring and entered the summer listed as starters, but they are far from locks to win the job this fall. Redshirt freshman Kevin Young and converted defensive lineman Lemuel Jeanpierre have drawn praise from USC's coaches this summer and are expected to get strong looks during fall practice and battle for the starting spots.
While the wide receiver position may be more fun for fans to keep an eye on, the battle for the two starting guard spots on the interior of the offensive line will be the most critical to USC's success this season. If the Gamecocks can settle on their starting guards early in fall camp and give the starting unit time to gel, that will bode well for their chances to get off to a better start this season.
III. Defensive Tackle
Junior Marque Hall returns this fall after suffering a torn ACL early last season, and while he is expected to regain his starting spot, there will be a heated battled for the remaining spots on the two deep on the interior defensive line. Junior Nathan Pepper stepped up in Hall's absence last season and was Carolina's best interior lineman, but he will receive stiff competition for the starting spot this fall from newcomer Ladi Ajiboye, who enrolled for the spring and was deemed "unblockable" by Coach Steve Spurrier. Redshirt freshman Kenrick Ellis, JUCO transfer Jonathan Williams and returning senior Joel Reaves will all contend for spots on the depth chart as well.
Carolina has rarely, if ever had this kind of quality depth and competition on the interior defensive line, but it's a good problem to have. With six SEC caliber players competing for four spots on the two deep, this position battle will be one of the most intense on the team, but as all the elite teams do, Carolina will let the cream rise to the top.
Returning starter Nathan Pepper is expected to battle freshman standout Ladi Ajiboye for the starting defensive tackle spot opposite Marque Hall.
IV. Outside Linebacker
First team All-SEC selection Jasper Brinkley and returning Freshman All-SEC performer Rodney Paulk are expected to man two of the starting spots in USC's linebacker corp this fall, but the stinger (strongside) linebacker job is still up for grabs. Casper Brinkley made the transition from defensive end to linebacker in the spring and is going to be given every opportunity to win the starting job, but after struggling in pass coverage during the spring, questions still remain if he will stay at linebacker or return to defensive end. If he struggles, that will open the door for a bevy of other players to compete for the starting job. Sophomore linebacker Gerrod Sinclair was one of the surprises of the spring, displaying improved fundamentals and a willingness to hit, and he is expected to contend for a spot on the two deep this fall. Junior Dustin Lindsey suffered a torn ACL in USC's spring game, but he is reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab and could begin practicing towards the end of fall camp. If he returns at full speed and qualifies academically, he will have a chance to back up Jasper Brinkley at middle linebacker and compete for a starting spot at strongside linebacker. Highly touted newcomer Melvin Ingram could also get a look in the fall at stinger linebacker, although his future will ultimately be at middle linebacker after Jasper Brinkley graduates.
With Brinkley and Paulk returning as starters this fall, the Gamecocks are hoping someone will step up and lock down the stinger spot. Casper Brinkley will be given first shot to win the job, but a number of quality players will battle to fill out the two deep or even start if Casper should struggle.
V. Tight End
Senior Andy Boyd returns after being granted a sixth year of eligibility, but the Gamecocks are planning to use the oft-injured Boyd carefully this season. While Boyd is a superb blocker, Carolina will look to a handful of younger players to provide more of a receiving threat at the tight end position this fall. Sophomore Jared Cook has made the move back to tight end this summer after spending the spring at wide receiver, and as one of the most physically gifted athletes on the team, he can cause match up problems in the passing game, but will still have to improve in his blocking. Redshirt freshman Nick Prochak was the surprise of the spring at tight end, as he made a successful transition from strong safety and showed the ability to make plays and a willingness to block. Newcomer Weslye Saunders was considered one of the top tight end prospects in the country coming out of high school last year, and the jumbo athlete possesses the physical tools to possibly contribute this season, but he will have to improve his conditioning and pick up the system quickly in order to make an early impact. Senior Robert Pavlovic is another option at the tight end position, but he will likely be utilized more for his blocking.
With Boyd and Pavlovic returning as quality blockers and Cook, Prochak and Saunders providing athletic receiving targets, the Gamecocks have options to work with at the tight end position this fall. The battle for positioning on the two deep will be intense, but with certain players possessing different skill sets, some of them will be used situationally even if they don't crack the depth chart.
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