Looking at the surface, Steve Spurrier's 2007 Gamecocks appear ready to contend for the school's first ever SEC Championship this fall. The Gamecocks are ranked 12th in the nation, have a defense giving up less than 10 points a game, and are 3-0 on the season, including a win over then 11th ranked Georgia in Athens. Cory Boyd and Mike Davis have combined for 507 yards through three games and lead an offense which has found itself trailing for a mere minute and a half the entire season.
However, while these stats show that USC has made some much needed progress in certain areas, and the Gamecocks are right where they wanted to be at this point in the season record-wise, some of the same question marks they had entering fall practice still linger. Fortunately, the defense should keep this team in the majority of their games, but for South Carolina to legitimately contend for its first ever SEC crown, these holes will have to be filled and the following questions must be answered:
Is there a number two receiver on the roster?
From the moment Sidney Rice announced to the masses that he would forego his junior year for his shot at the NFL, the search for a number two receiver began at USC.
Entering fall camp, the big question still loomed as South Carolina welcomed in what many consider to be the number one receiver class in the nation. After an up and down preseason, the Gamecocks are now three weeks into the year with Moe Brown and Larry Freeman struggling with consistency and Freddie Brown not getting open against the man-press that teams are using. Thus, the Carolina offense finds itself still desperately searching for a receiving threat opposite McKinley. While McKinley leads the team in receptions with 17, two running backs and two tight ends have more receptions than the next Gamecock wide receiver, Freddie Brown (four receptions).
Logging their most snaps of the season, freshmen Jason Barnes and Mark Barnes showed signs of being legitimate threats in the passing game Saturday with a combined three catches for 46-yards and a touchdown. Both players have good hands, and have shown the ability to adjust to the ball and make the big play in practice, though neither knows the playbook as well as is needed to excel in Coach Spurrier's system yet. Dion Lecorn, another true freshman, also played Saturday and will be given every opportunity to show that he can step up and be the guy. Though he didn't play Saturday, Chris Culliver has shown the explosiveness that made him one of the most highly recruited players in North Carolina out of high school, though he doesn't know the intricacies of the wide receiver position well enough yet to be considered a consistent threat.
With the receivers struggling as a unit, if the Browns and Freeman cannot soon step up and play better, the coaching staff will be forced to use trial by fire with the freshmen and play the young receivers before they are ready. While freshmen mistakes will be inevitable, South Carolina cannot continue to win games simply by way of the short passing game and relying on the ground game to carry the load, as teams will begin to stack the box on the Gamecock offense. While it would not be beneficial to have all the young receivers in the game at one time, the coaching staff will likely look to bring them along by rotating them in on three-receiver sets with McKinley and F. Brown there to give them direction if needed.
Can the offensive line play at a consistently high level?
Much like the receiving corps, the Gamecocks entered fall practice seeking to find their top guys early along the offensive line and allow their best five linemen to work together for most of the fall. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way, as they opened the season still not knowing who the top five guys were.
The three-game suspension of senior right guard James Thompson, along with an ankle injury to Kevin Young, has slowed the progress, as offensive line coach John Hunt firmly believes in the power of the same five guys learning to play together as one cohesive unit.
Coach Spurrier has done a great job of scheming around the Gamecocks' deficiencies so far, but smoke and mirrors only fool for so long. At some point, the line will have to come together and give Spurrier the confidence in using the five and seven-step drops needed to run the offense he wants. With the Gamecock defense playing at a championship caliber level, the offense doesn't have to be dynamic, but the offensive line at least needs to protect well enough for Blake Mitchell to get comfortable. If Thind is healthy Saturday, he and sophomore Garrett Anderson at guard give South Carolina the best chance to win at this point in time.
Can the Special Teams ever be "special?"
Spurrier's move to hire Shane Beamer in the offseason was brilliant, as it brought a young, talented recruiter to the staff who would also hopefully bring a significant upgrade to the Gamecocks' special teams play. While it wouldn't be fair to blame Beamer, those hopes for a much improved kicking game have not come to fruition yet, as the special teams players have yet to show the effort and determination Spurrier wants to see. As a result, Spurrier has been forced to play starters like the Jasper and Casper Brinkley, along with Cory Boyd and Mike Davis on special teams.
On the bright side, all-conference kicker Ryan Succop has been nearly flawless, connecting on four of five field goal attempts, while averaging almost 42-yards a punt. Succop's most amazing feat, however, has been his ability to put kickoffs in the end zone. He is a huge weapon in that aspect, with a combination of the new kickoff rule and the Gamecocks' struggles covering kickoffs. In a very telling stat, Succop has 6 of the total 14 touchbacks by SEC kickers on the season.
Stay tuned to GamecockAnthem.com tomorrow, as we will bring you part two of this series. We will look at some of the questions the Gamecocks have answered, including the stellar defense so far and the improved red zone play of both the offensive and defensive units.
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