Fall Preview: South Carolina vs. Vanderbilt
South Carolina Offensive Line vs. Vanderbilt Defensive Line
As with any game, this one will start with the battle in the trenches. One big reason the Gamecocks have been able to go on a recent string of victories against Vanderbilt has been their ability to win the battle up front. It was midway through this game last year that South Carolina offensive line coach John Hunt, inserted Justin Sorenson into the line up at right tackle, which was a catalyst for the Gamecocks' late season surge in offensive line play. Sorenson is back and paired up with left tackle Jamon Meredith to form a solid duo of starters outside. The Gamecocks, however, will need to be settled on the interior of their offensive line by this time or it will have been a long season for the Gamecock faithful.
Sorenson and his teammates will face a Vanderbilt defensive line returning half of its starters, including last years team-sack-leader, Curtis Gatewood. The converted linebacker had seven sacks a year ago. The other returning starter is senior Theo Horrocks, who is not a big-time playmaker but will always be in the right spot. Sophomore Gabe Hall had a productive spring and will likely start at the other tackle spot with Steven Stone, a former basketball player, starting at the other end spot. Sophomores Greg Billinger and Broderick Stewart will also see a lot of time at tackle and end respectively.
South Carolina Running backs vs. Vanderbilt Linebackers
The Vandy defense is led by senior monster middle linebacker Jonathan Goff. Goff was a candidate to leave early for the draft last year, but decided to play out his senior year in Nashville. Also returning alongside Goff in the lineup is senior Marcus Buggs. While not as well known as Goff, Buggs is a solid starter on the strongside. The weakside linebacker spot will likely be manned by sophomore Brandon Bryant.
Despite the accolades, Vanderbilt's linebackers will need to bring their A-game in order to stop the 1-2 punch of Cory Boyd and Mike Davis. Boyd and Davis will test the Commodores both between the tackles and as receiving threats out of the backfield. It is looking more likely as fall practice goes on that freshman Brian Maddox will avoid a redshirt year and will join Boyd and Davis as a third option in the Gamecock backfield.
South Carolina Wide Receivers vs. Vanderbilt Secondary
Vanderbilt's secondary returns all four starters from last year . One of those starters, Joel Caldwell, has moved from cornerback to safety and will back up Reshard Langford and Ryan Hamilton there. Langford is a hard-hitting safety and one of the teams most valuable players. At cornerback, former South Carolina prep standout D.J. Moore will start at one corner spot, while 6-3 sophomore Myron Lewis will start at the other spot. Lewis' height should allow him to match up well with the taller Gamecock receivers.
Kenny McKinley had 2 catches for 41 yards a 1 touchdown in the Gamecocks' 31-13 win over Vanderbilt last season.
They will face a Gamecock wide receiver corp that should be hitting its stride by this time in the year. Kenny McKinley is as underrated as any receiver in the conference and actually finished on the Top-10 list in school history for catches in a single season in 2006 despite being overshadowed by Sidney Rice. Behind McKinley, sophomores Moe and Freddie Brown, and a plethora of freshmen receivers will round out the Gamecock receivers. The most ready to contribute of those freshman receivers is Jason Barnes, while speedster Chris Culliver, Matt Clements, and Dion Lecorn have all shown signs. There is a possibility the Gamecocks could trot out four freshman in their receiver rotation this season.
Overall South Carolina Offense vs. Vanderbilt Defense
The South Carolina offense is led by fifth-year senior Blake Mitchell, who will look to build off a strong finish to the 2006 season. With a career that has been mostly up and down to this point, the Gamecock coaches will look for Mitchell to finally put together a complete season.
The Head Ball Coach will probably use a balanced attack and feature a heavy dose of Cory Boyd against the experienced Commodore defense. Most of the pieces for the intricate Spurrier offense to run smoothly should be in place by then, with the young receivers and interior linemen getting valuable SEC minutes. While the Vanderbilt defense is more talented than years past and has the size to compete, they will be at a speed disadvantage against most SEC offenses, and the Gamecock offense should be no different. Steve Spurrier's offense should move the ball well and put up a point total at least in the 30 range, as they have the past two seasons with less talent on offense.
Vanderbilt Offensive Line vs. South Carolina Defensive Line
A revamped South Carolina defensive line will face a Commodore all-senior offensive line returning four of five starters. The best of those seniors are tackles Chris Williams and Brian Stamper. Both are likely first day picks in the NFL draft next April, though Stamper missed seven games last year due to a back injury and much of the spring due to a foot injury. If Stamper can't go, 6-7 sophomore Thomas Welch will be his replacement. At the inside spots, a trio of 6-4 guys will start in Merritt Kirchoffer, Josh Eames, and Hamilton Holiday. Talented sophomore Bradley Vierling could push for a starting spot inside as well.
The Gamecock defensive line will need to get pressure on Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson but will have a hard time doing so against Williams and Stamper. Eric Norwood is a great pass rusher, though, and is poised to have a big year. The battle between Norwood and the two talented Vandy tackles will be an important one to watch. Nickson can be very dangerous if not pressured. The entire Vandy line is experienced but should be more vulnerable inside where Marque Hall, Nathan Pepper, and Ladi Ajiboye will attempt to knife into the backfield.
Vanderbilt Running Backs vs. South Carolina Linebackers
The Commodore rushing attack will be bolstered by the return of talented tailback Jeff Jennings. Jennings missed all of the Commodores 2006 campaign while recovering from a torn MCL and ACL. They also return their starter from last year, Cassen Jackson-Garrison who rushed for 614 yards, second on the team only to Nickson. Both are big guys at 6-1, 215 pounds and run well between the tackles. Jared Hawkins is a different type back and will play the role of a faster, change-of-pace guy in their offense.
Senior linebacker/defensive end Casper Brinkley warranted SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors last season for his 6 tackle, 4 TFL, 2 sack performance against the Commodores.
As most know, the Gamecock linebackers will be led by one of the top returning defenders in the SEC, senior Jasper Brinkley. Brinkley will be joined in the starting line up by returning Freshman All-SEC backer Rodney Paulk. Competition for the third starting spot is intense and will be handled by one of Casper Brinkley, Dustin Lindsey, Gerrod Sinclair, Marvin Sapp, and true freshman Melvin Ingram. C. Brinkley was the likely starter heading into fall practice, but could move back to defensive end, the position he played a year ago with senior Jordin Lindsey's academic situation up in the air. If C. Binkley plays end, then Dustin Lindsey has experience over the others guys, but the Gamecock coaches are as high on Ingram as any of the talented Gamecock freshmen.
Vanderbilt Wide Receivers vs. South Carolina Secondary
The face of the Vanderbilt passing game for the past two years has been 6-1 junior Earl Bennett. Bennett improved on a great freshman year with an astounding 82-catch performance last year. The two-time All-SEC performer should garner All-American honors this year and go down as the best pass-catcher in Commodore history. Two other juniors, George Smith and Sean Walker, will join Bennett in Vandy's three-wide sets. Smith measures in at 6-3 while Walker has more speed than Bennett or Smith. The trio of receivers give Nickson formidable targets to throw to with tight end Brad Allen also a solid option.
The Gamecock secondary will have its hands full attempting to slow down Bennett and the rest of the Commodore receivers. USC's top three corners are former four-star Carlos Thomas, freshman All-SEC performer Captain Munnerlyn, and Stoney Woodson who, along with Thomas, was named the teams most improved corner in the spring. At safety, senior Brandon Isaac returns after taking a redshirt last year and is poised to have a breakout year. Isaac is an unknown to the rest of the SEC world but has NFL potential at free safety and could be a first day pick. At strong safety Emanuel Cook is working to avoid a sophomore slump after a strong true freshman season.
Overall Vanderbilt Offense vs. South Carolina Defense
Although the Vanderbilt offense will be overlooked by many, it does feature some valuable playmakers and the most experienced offensive line in the conference. Bennett is as productive as any receiver in the country and is on pace to break the SEC career records for both receptions and yards receiving as only a junior. The Gamecock defense will key in on Bennett and double team him, but will still be hard pressed to stop him. It is much more realistic to expect them to slow him down. The Vanderbilt offense, however, will only be as consistent as its quarterback. Nickson is a threat both as a passer and with his legs but struggled with inconsistency a year ago, including a forgettable performance against South Carolina when he was only 4-15 for 76-yards passing.
Nickson will get help from the return of running back Jennings and the Commodore offense has too many weapons not to put up some points this year. Despite all those weapons, they will face a much improved Gamecock defense that gave up only 13 points in Nashville a year ago. If Nickson can rebound from his effort last year, then this game could turn into a shootout, while if he has a repeat performance, it could turn into a Gamecock blow out.
Keys to Victory
I. Slow down Bennett
While the Gamecock defense likely won't stop Bennett completely, as he is one of the most complete pass catchers in the country, slowing him down would go a long way to slowing down the Vanderbilt offense.
II. Get pressure on Nickson
With Vanderbilt's experienced and talented tackles, this could be easier said than done, but the best way to cause Nickson to have a repeat performance of last year will be to get pressure on him. If the Carolina defensive line can pressure him, the Gamecocks could very well win going away.
III. Limit turnovers
As always, the Gamecock offense will need to refrain from giving Vanderbilt extra opportunities. If they play their game and don't give the ball away, it will go a long way towards a USC victory.
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