Corbett: Young guns help USC build depth
Bring your programs on Thursday night to find out which direction the South Carolina football program is headed. The freshmen are playing, and the upperclassmen are liking the results.
The USC coaching staff kept its apparent promise to the highly touted freshman class: If you can help us, you can play right away.
Steve Spurrier watchers will likely not be surprised to know that the Gamecocks played eight different wide receivers against Mississippi State, including freshmen Dion Lecorn, Mark Barnes and Chris Culliver. Junior Kenny McKinley easily rattles off the seven other wideouts, who played with him against Mississippi State, including Freddie Brown and Moe Brown, even all three tight ends who caught passes – Andy Boyd, Jared Cook and Wesley Saunders.
"It electrifies me" says McKinley, as he describes their contributions - Even how Freddie Brown earned the nickname First down Freddie Brown "because he has the best hands" among the receiving corps. "I wouldn't be able to make the catches I did without him" in last Saturday's 38-21 win, talking about Freddie Brown's three catches for 50 yards against MSU. No USC receiver contributed as much as McKinley against the Bulldogs, as he had three outstanding catches and runs among his 4 receptions for 107 yards and two TD's. Using so many receivers "keeps me fresh all game," says McKinley, the elder statesman of the bunch.
On defense, it's surprisingly the same. One season after Coach Spurrier reportedly told 5-star defensive end prospect Cliff Matthews the Gamecocks would have beaten #2 Auburn with just one more pass rusher, true freshmen Travian Robertson, Ladi Ajiboye and Mathews are not only playing, but have started a majority of USC's games. But look up during a key series in the game and you are as likely to see senior defensive end Ryan Brown, a part time starter last season, on the field as one of the heralded freshman. Seniors such as Brown and Joel Reeves are still playing lots of snaps on the defensive line, while linebacker Cody Wells and strong safety Chris Hampton play their final season as second teamers behind a freshman (Mathews) and a sophomore (Emanuel Cook) – and like it.
"We all play about the same," says Hampton, who had six tackles and an interception against LSU. "It's not a problem who starts. It's very important to have numbers; guys won't get fatigued."
USC's offense usually plays about 25 people each game, including both first and second team performers for at least the two offensive guard positions. But who would guess that the Gamecocks rely on 20 defenders, including rotating eight defensive linemen?
"Anytime you can rotate defensive lineman or linebackers, it's a good thing," says Spurrier nonchalantly. "We do have a few extra defensive players we can throw in there."
In the secondary, it is three sophomores – Captain Munnerlyn, Darian Stewart, Emanuel Cook and junior Carlos Thomas starting the game. But Hampton, junior Stoney Woodson and even freshman Addison Williams play significant snaps. The result is a seemingly seamless web of defenders sticking to the ball and opponents stopping them short of the goal line (15.6 points per game) and snatching passers and pass catchers (106.4 per game) to rank first in the nation in pass defense.
Against 8th ranked Kentucky Thursday night, the Gamecocks may use the "quality depth" to their advantage. The short week does not affect strategy and schemes according to Spurrier, but it does affect the players recovering from bruises and slight injuries. "As far as X's and O's go, you can play in two days. We could play tonight (Monday) if we had to."
The statistical strength of USC's defense is the pass defense, though some say the porous run defense (201.2 yards per game) inflates the pass defense statistics. Carolina faces a different type of offense this week, led by Heisman Trophy Candidate Andre Woodson, who is completing 67% of his passes, averaging 261 yards per game with 16 TD passes and just one interception in five games. The interception last week against FAU broke an NCAA record 325 straight passes without an interception.
"We haven't played against a true passing team yet," says Spurrier, who compares Woodson's beautiful spirals to those of former Southern Cal QB and current Cincinnati Bengal starter Carson Palmer.
Anderson, SC native Rafeal Little averages 109 yards per game on the ground from his tailback position to balance the offense, which has two three-year letter winning seniors (right guard Jason Leger and Center Eric Scott) and a two-year letterman junior (Garry Williams) anchoring the offensive line. Throw in senior standout Keenan Burton's six catches for 84 yards and a TD per game average, and it will take the Gamecocks' newcomers and veterans to stop Kentucky and score enough to win Thursday and thereby advance into the Top Ten. "Every game stands on its own merit," says Spurrier.
While the Gamecocks need to bring their "A" game to win each SEC game, USC fans may have to bring their programs to know who they are cheering for.
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