Mid-season report card: Grading the offense
Prior to the 2007 season head coach Steve Spurrier talked about South Carolina contending for an SEC title in his third year with the program. While some were skeptics and others were believers, exactly half way through the regular season the Gamecocks find themselves just where they hoped to be: 5-1 overall, ranked 7th in the nation, and sitting alone atop an SEC East that features five teams in the top-25.
The Gamecocks' lone loss was to an LSU team that is now ranked No. 1 in the nation and looks poised to make a run at the National Championship. Carolina did not let the 12-point loss deter their will, as they recovered to win their next two SEC contests, including a rain-drenched Thursday night showdown with then-No. 8 Kentucky. Just as amazing as the Gamecocks' lofty ranking, their highest in 23 years, is the fact they are still not firing on all cylinders and have not yet played to their full potential. While the offense has looked solid at times, the unit ranks 8th in the conference in both total offense and scoring offense, and has much more room to improve than the defense.
Here is how GamecockAnthem grades the offense:
The potential of any offense starts with the quarterback. Prior to the season, Spurrier talked at length about the advantage of having a fifth-year senior starting quarterback in Blake Mitchell. After missing the season opener due to suspension, Mitchell showed the value of his experience, managing the game well in a crucial win over Georgia in Athens. However, after a three-interception performance against S.C. State and an ineffective first half at LSU, it appears Mitchell will not finish the season as the Gamecocks' starting signal-caller.
Enter Chris Smelley, a redshirt freshman quarterback in the Spurrier mold who is mature beyond his years. The 6-1, 218 pound Tuscaloosa, AL native has completed 58 passes in 107 attempts for 810 yards and 6 touchdowns in three wins as the starting quarterback. Smelley has all the intangibles you want in a quarterback and is a natural leader who makes those around him want to play harder. Smelley has shown a tendency to throw into traffic too much and hold onto the ball too long on some occasions, but these are freshman mistakes and are correctable. Smelley will continue to improve and can benefit the most from improved receiver and line play down the stretch.
The brightest spot on the offense has been the play of its two stellar running backs. Cory Boyd and Mike Davis have rushed for 387 and 383 yards, respectively, while pounding out tough yards despite sub-par offensive line play in front of them. The two blue collar backs may not get the publicity of other backfield duos in the southeast, but if there are two backs who run with more heart and determination than them, I would love to see them. Just as important as Davis and Boyd's power running game has been their receiving ability out of the backfield. They have combined for 33 receptions on the season and are second and third on the team in receptions, trailing only Kenny McKinley. Boyd and Davis are both natural leaders as well and have been a big part of the Gamecocks' success. Boyd showed how much he truly cares about his teammates and this season when he openly cried during a TV interview after the Gamecocks' emotional victory over Georgia.
With Sidney Rice trading in his Gamecock garnet and black for Vikings' purple many questioned if Kenny McKinley could step into the number one receiver role this season. McKinley has quieted the naysayers, leading the team with 382 yards on 32 receptions, as well as being the leader of an inexperienced receiver corps. The junior and former high school quarterback has been a teacher and coach to the younger receivers on the roster. Beyond McKinley things have not been quite as positive. Freddie Brown is second among the receivers with nine catches and has looked good against zone defenses, but has struggled to get off the press and get open. Larry Freeman and Moe Brown have failed to live up to pre-season hype, while the Gamecocks' highly-ranked freshman crop of receivers has been relatively quiet combining for just six catches on the season. Newcomer Chris Culliver has shown flashes of brilliance on the end around play, but has yet to settle into the offense as a full time receiver. Freshman Dion Lecorn, an Ocala, FL native, looks the closest to being the number two pass catcher the offense desperately needs. Lecorn has caught three passes in two games as starter and has also impressed with his hard nosed downfield blocking style. The Gamecocks will need more production from their receiver corps to make the final six games of the season as successful as the first.
Prior to this season, South Carolina's tight ends were rarely used for much more than blocking. This year, with the receivers struggling, young Smelley has found a safe-haven in his talented tight ends and often looks to them on third and long situations. Andy Boyd, Jared Cook, and freshman Weslye Saunders bring talent and depth to the position rarely seen in Columbia, SC. The trio all bring different strengths to the position and have been a huge part of the offense to this point in the season, combining for 24 receptions.
As good as the three have been, they will have to be even better in the Gamecocks' final six games. Cook, as well as he has played, still has not tapped into his full potential and can be an unstoppable weapon if he learns to run more precise routes and keeps his head in the game at all times. Saunders has proven a weapon as well, but freshman mistakes such as not reaching out for a first down in Baton Rouge and not protecting the ball heading into the end zone against Kentucky have kept him from being great so far.
Long before the 2007 season began, Spurrier expressed the importance of finding the best five guys on the offensive line to start the year. While the coaching staff did their best to do so, their attempts failed as the Gamecocks once again find themselves halfway through the season without a dependable offensive line. While tackle Jamon Meredith and center Web Brown have been the line's most dependable players, and Justin Sorenson is firmly entrenched in his starting right tackle spot, the two guard positions have been manned by a revolving door of candidates. In the coaches' defense, injuries and a suspension have hurt their efforts as Gurminder Thind, Kevin Young, and James Thompson have all missed time. However, the staff will need to find their five in the next two games and stick with them.
After a strong showing against Mississippi State, Thompson looked to have solidified one of the guard spots, but after practice Monday Spurrier announced a poor performance by the senior against Kentucky would likely lead to Lemuel Jeanpierre getting another shot in the starting lineup. The staff does not lack bodies to try at the position, as in addition to Thompson and Jeanpierre, Young and Thind are now returning from injury and will likely get a shot at earning playing time. Also in contention is sophomore Garrett Anderson, who has played extensively in the second half of the past two games. The last player vying for a permanent place in the lineup and most overlooked prior to the season is redshirt freshman Seaver Brown, who has started each of the last two games and will likely start a third this weekend in Chapel Hill after earning praise from the coaching staff for his performances.
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