Gamecocks return to practice fields

The Gamecocks hit the practice fields again on Saturday morning, and despite still practicing in shorts, there was a little more intensity for the second go-round.


Even though the coaches have a rule that no player should be knocked to the ground, several South Carolina players found themselves with grass stains at the end of the session. Freshman cornerback Akeem Auguste seemed to find himself on the wrong end of contact more than his share of times. While returning a punt, Auguste ran into Jasper Brinkley and bounced off Brinkley like he ran into a wall. Later, quarterback Chris Smelley was blocking on a reverse, and put a little extra oomph in his block when Auguste came near, sending the freshman to the ground.

The biggest news of the day was that sophomore speedster Chris Culliver switched from wide receiver to safety. Culliver played sparingly on offense during his freshman season, getting most of his work on special teams. Culliver played mostly at safety in high school, so he is familiar with the position.

"We moved Chris Culliver over to defense," said Steve Spurrier. "We needed a little help there. Chris just wasn't working as well on offense. We just felt like maybe it was time to let him see if he could become a starter at safety. Chris never played receiver much at all until he got here. He wanted to play receiver, and we generally allow each player to pick where he wants to play. He was very comfortable with moving, in fact it was sort of his idea, and we were about to make the move also."

The battle at quarterback continued Saturday, as Smelley, Stephen Garcia, and Tommy Beecher remain locked in a tight contest. During practice, there was an increased emphasis on the quarterbacks' ability to move with the football, both on designed rollouts and draws, and scrambling out of broken plays. Spurrier has indicated that he thinks mobility at the quarterback position is important for success, and he expects to see more of it from the Gamecocks this season.

"Hopefully that will help our running game, with the quarterback being a little bit of a threat," Spurrier said. "They all run right around 4.7 [seconds in the 40-yard dash]."

The arrival of coordinator Ray Rychleski has prompted a change in the way Carolina approaches special teams. More practice time is devoted to the unit, and the kickers no longer leave the practice fields to work on their own. Instead, Rychleski has the kickers stay on the field with the rest of the team during other drills. Each off-season, Spurrier has tried to shake things up to improve the Gamecocks' special teams, and this time he is confident the changes will pay off.

"We do fifteen minutes [of special teams work] before we stretch, and we do our usual ten," he said. "Coach Ray is well-organized. He's the most well-organized coach I think I've ever been around. Every year we say we're emphasizing [special teams], but I think now you can tell we're spending more time with it and it looks like we know what we're doing. Hopefully it will pay dividends. I like what Coach Ray says. He tells everybody that this is part of the team and it is. We're trying to get everybody to participate."


Pepper aiming to be back by summer

One of those who did not participate much in practice was defensive lineman Nathan Pepper. Pepper started the first game last season at defensive tackle, and then started the next two at defensive end, where he helped shore up Carolina's run defense. Against S.C. State in the third game, Pepper intercepted a pass and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown. However, as he crossed the goal line, his knee buckled, and he was lost for the year with a torn ACL.

Pepper received a medical redshirt for last season, and the junior now wears a yellow no-contact jersey when the Gamecocks practice. He is able to do some drills, but patience is the best treatment as he comes back from injury.

"I can tell you right now, I'm not 100%," Pepper said. "I'll be full strength by June, for summer workouts. It's going pretty good. I got a lot of work in and it felt good. I'm doing a lot of footwork, a lot of agility [drills], trying to get my wind back up."

Entering spring practice, the biggest hurdle for Pepper was not so much physical, but mental. Even after being cleared to do some light work, he was still concerned about how his knee would hold up. Getting out and participating in some drills was enough to convince Pepper his knee could handle the pressure.

"I was feeling kind of bad about it. I didn't think I had progressed as much as I wanted to. I've been able to do things, but I was kind of holding myself back. I've just got to let it go, come out here, and get some work done."

One unique problem Pepper faces is that following his injury, his leg muscles atrophied. Because he had to favor the leg, he was unable to exercise it as much as his other leg, so he is now faced with having get his muscles and knee back in shape.

"The injured thigh, that muscle is taking some time to come back," said Pepper. "It was something I thought wouldn't be a problem, I was more concerned about my knee. But it's more of the whole leg than just the knee."

Even though he is not participating in contact drills, it is important that Pepper is still at practice because the Gamecocks are installing new coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense. Pepper wants all the experience he can get with the new playbook so he and the rest of the defense will be ready for the fall. Fortunately, the basics are similar to Tyrone Nix's defense, but Pepper has to get the specifics down.

"It's a lot of the same things we've done, it's just hard to learn the terminology," he said. "That's the only thing we have to deal with."


Notes:

- Stoney Woodson (leg) was added to the injury list Saturday.

- The Gamecocks will have Sunday off, then practice again Monday at 7 PM. They will also practice Wednesday and Friday, and then scrimmage next Saturday.


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