Top 5 storylines to watch in spring practice
I. Can Garcia live up to the hype? Or will Smelley keep the job?
Ever since South Carolina's 2007 season ended with a thud and the program realized it would not be going to a postseason bowl game for the first time in the Spurrier era, the talk among fans has been centered around a young gunslinger from Florida. He has the strongest arm of any quarterback on the team. He is the best runner and most athletic of any of the quarterbacks. He has the size, is confident, and is a natural leader. He has drawn praise from insiders, outsiders, fans, and from Steve Spurrier himself.
His name is Stephen Garcia, and while he is one of the most highly touted quarterbacks to ever sign with USC, he has not yet played a down of college football.
Enter Chris Smelley. The forgotten man, Smelley led the Gamecocks to four wins a season ago while hitting on 92 of 162 passes for nine touchdowns as only a redshirt freshman. He is accurate, smart, and will be entering his third year in the Spurrier system. All are things Spurrier covets in a quarterback.
If Smelley is the forgotten man, then Tommy Beecher isn't even on the radar. Despite the lack of attention surrounding Beecher, he is a student of the game and will be entering his fourth season in the offense. With aspirations to one day be a head coach, Beecher may know the offense better than any of the other quarterbacks, though he doesn't have the experience Smelley does.
With Blake Mitchell exhausting his eligibility last season, everyone is eager to see if one of these signal-callers will step up and grab the starting job by the horns this spring or if the battle will carry over into the fall.
Simply put, the battle at quarterback will be the single most-watched and most talked-about storyline of this spring practice.
II. Will we see some of the tweaks to the offense this spring?
Another big story of the offseason has been the constant talk of Spurrier adding new wrinkles to his offense.
Those expecting to see a completely new scheme and a true spread-option attack will surely be disappointed. But Spurrier has said himself he would like to add some new wrinkles to his "Cock 'n Fire" attack, and Gamecock fans could get their first look at those during spring practice and the ensuing Garnet and Black Game on April 19.
While fans will undoubtedly be looking closely for the changes and new plays, there is no guarantee Spurrier will even debut those new plays. He may, instead, opt to hold those back until fall practice when his practices will more than likely be behind closed doors. Which quarterback spends spring practice as the frontrunner for the starting job could also determine how much of the new offense fans see.
III. What will Ellis Johnson's defense look like?
While the offense may get more hype, the biggest changes from last year will come on the other side of the ball.
Johnson's first order of business will likely be to start experimenting with the linebacker depth chart in an effort to develop a solid two-deep there. Alonzo Winfield and Gerrod Sinclair have been mentioned often in the offseason and should get a shot early, but will they be able to step up? Can Johnson develop enough depth there to move Cliff Matthews to defensive end?
At the safety positions, Johnson will have to deal with paper-thin depth, and it will be interesting to see what players move there or if incoming freshmen Antonio Allen and Jay Spearman can make an impact.
Anytime a new coordinator comes in to put his stamp on a program there will be personnel changes and that will hold true with Johnson. Some of these changes may come as a surprise, but Spurrier will give Johnson free rein to make whatever position changes he sees fit.
IV. Where will the offensive line carousel stop?
For the first time during his tenure at USC, offensive line coach John Hunt will enter spring practice with multiple options at all five positions on the offensive line.
The biggest shake-up could come if JUCO transfer Jarriel King makes it into USC in March to start eight-week courses. Long thought to be headed to the defensive line, King could get his first look at left tackle where his size and athleticism could shore up the most important position on the OL. That would leave returning starter Justin Sorenson, Heath Batchelor, Hutch Eckerson, and Quintin Richardson to battle for the right tackle spot for the first two games. If King were to win the starting LT job, then Jamon Meredith, last year's starter there, would have to be considered the frontrunner to start at RT after sitting out the first two games of the season due to the medical waiver he was granted by the NCAA.
At the guard spots Gurminder Thind, Lemuel JeanPierre, Terrence Campbell, and Kevin Young will battle for starting spots. Batchelor and Richardson could also play into the equation here depending on what happens at tackle.
At center, Garrett Anderson is considered the favorite to win the starting job right now, but rising sophomore Seaver Brown and rising redshirt freshman Ryan Broadhead will provide adequate competition.
USC has some talent on the line and all of the starting positions are legitimately up in the air at this point. There are many different scenarios that could play out, but this is the year Hunt desperately needs to have his depth chart accurately set by the first game.
V. Who will step up at wide receiver?
With USC's leading receiver from a season ago sidelined with a toe injury and the recent news of returning starter Dion Lecorn and Matt Clements' indefinite suspensions, the Gamecocks' other young receivers should have every opportunity to show what they are capable of.
Joseph Hills has a tremendous upside and is a playmaker who can earn a starting job if he can learn the playbook and live up to his potential. All eyes will be on the rising redshirt freshman as he looks to be the jump-ball receiver the Gamecocks lacked a season ago after Sidney Rice opted out of his junior year for the NFL draft.
Jason Barnes is another tall, athletic receiver who simply needs to get comfortable in the offense. The former Independence High star will also get every opportunity to show he deserves to play.
While Mark Barnes looked to be headed back to the defensive side of the ball, questions at receiver, as well as a nagging shoulder injury could keep him on offense. Barnes is a natural playmaker who has soft hands and a knack for plucking the ball out of the air at its highest point. Barnes could be a sleeper to watch this spring as he has been considered an afterthought on the offensive side of the ball by some.
Chris Culliver will also get the chance to show he has made the transition from raw athlete to true receiver. Culliver has worked hard in the offseason to develop as a receiver and could be the game-breaking speedster the offense has lacked for the last three seasons.
Rising junior Moe Brown has speed to burn as well and finished off the 2007 season on a solid run. Brown had problems with drops early during the '07 campaign, but has all the physical tools to contribute.
With these receivers entering their second and third years in Spurrier's system, they could really begin to feel comfortable in the offense and add to the depth at receiver which is still nowhere near what Spurrier had at his disposal at Florida.
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