Below GamecockAnthem.com's trio of writers discuss five burning questions surrounding the Gamecock offense heading into the 2008 season.
1. Will the offensive line show significant improvement this season?
Jonathan Jolley: There truly are no excuses for the offensive line this year. With fifteen scholarship linemen on campus - most of which are in at least their third year in the program - and four out of five starters returning from last season, the offensive line should be significantly improved this fall. There's been quality competition at every position along the line this preseason, and now the biggest goal for offensive line coach John Hunt will be to identify the best five linemen and allow them to build chemistry together as a unit early in the season.
Three starting positions appear to be set on the line. Redshirt sophomore Heath Batchelor, arguably the most physical lineman on the team, has solidified the right guard position and has been touted by Hunt as a possible All-SEC candidate. Junior Garrett Anderson has had a strong preseason at center, responding to the challenge of the coaches to play with more intensity, and he appears ready to live up to his reputation as one of the most talented linemen on the team. Senior Justin Sorenson has had a strong offseason and showed up this fall in the best playing shape of his career. Sorenson isn't the most fleet of foot lineman, but his strength, physicality, and experience have helped him lock down the starting right tackle job.
Left tackle, on the other hand, has been home to one of the most heated position battles on the team, as redshirt sophomore Hutch Eckerson, redshirt freshman Quintin Richardson, and highly touted JUCO transfer Jarriel King have battled it out for positioning on the depth chart. Healthy competition is never a bad thing, and the arrival of King has made both Eckerson and Richardson raise their level of play. Who will start the opener at left tackle remains to be seen, but it appears a matter of "when," not "if" King will eventually win the starting job. The 6'7", 294 pound sophomore, who possesses a special breed of athleticism for a player his size, is viewed by the coaches as a "franchise" type left tackle once he can master the fundamental aspects of the position.
Redshirt junior Lemuel Jeanpierre is expected to start at left guard in the first two weeks of the season, but senior Jamon Meredith, the most experienced and physically impressive lineman on the team, could unseat him when he returns to action after sitting out the first two games as a requirement for being granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA. That would further solidify the interior of the line and help the Gamecocks field what should be the most athletic, talented, and experienced offensive line of the Spurrier era.
As the season goes on I look for King and Meredith to move into those two spots. Add in Garrett Anderson, Heath Batchelor and Justin Sorenson as the other three starters and that may get the best five players on the field, though Richardson might have something to say about that. The offensive line should begin to hit its stride in the section of games between the UGA and LSU contests. The o-line has been one of the hardest working units on the team in the offseason, and by that point in the year all of that work should pay off and USC should field its best line of the Spurrier era.
Christopher Wellbaum: It has to, right? For the first time since he arrived, John Hunt has options on the offensive line. In previous years, if a starter struggled, the other choice was usually a walk-on or a defensive lineman. Both alternatives occasionally worked, but Hunt has to feel a lot better to know that now the other option is not only a guy he brought in to play, but also someone with experience. Of course, depth does not equal improvement if the talent is equally poor.
It is hard to see how that is the case, though. Over the summer, Spurrier touted Jamon Meredith as a possible All-SEC player at left tackle. Now it appears Meredith will move to left guard to make room for a pair of young players, Quintin Richardson and Jarriel King. Anytime you have an NFL-caliber tackle moving inside to make room for somebody new, it bodes well for both positions. Heath Batchelor and Justin Sorensen make up a solid tandem on the right side of the line, and Garrett Anderson should be a good anchor at center. It would be premature to say the offensive line woes are over, but there is definitely good cause for optimism.
2. What are realistic expectations for Tommy Beecher in his first year as a starter?
Jonathan Jolley: I was admittedly skeptical about Beecher heading into fall camp. He hadn't played any significant snaps in his first three years in the program and hadn't shown much in practice other than the ability to play efficiently within the offense. However, it was obvious from day one of the preseason that Beecher had a strong summer and had gained a newfound confidence after being named the no. 1 quarterback. He carried himself well on the practice fields, was decisive and accurate while running the offense, and appeared surprisingly comfortable in the spotlight that comes with being a starting quarterback under Steve Spurrier.
What does that mean for the upcoming season? Time will tell. But Beecher has shown the ability to run the offense and make all the throws necessary in Steve Spurrier's system. He even possesses underrated mobility and can make some plays with his legs. I expect the redshirt junior signal-caller to have a few growing pains early in the season as most first year starters do, but as he gets more comfortable in game action, I believe he has the potential to be an efficient and possibly very productive quarterback with the wealth of skill players that he'll have surrounding him. The good news for Beecher is that he likely won't be asked to win many games as a first year starter this fall. He'll simply be asked to play within the offense, get the ball to his playmakers, and not make any mistakes to lose the game.
Spurrier said at media day this year that you first have to look at your quarterback's protection and the weapons around him. If your quarterback has those two things then it comes down to his ability to find and deliver the pass to his open receivers. While it is an incredibly simplified way to look at things, I believe Beecher can do just that. He probably won't grab national headlines, and there will be some mistakes along the way, but Tommy Beecher has what it takes to run the offense, and that's all that matters.
Christopher Wellbaum: Succeeding as a quarterback under Spurrier is less about physical ability than it is about mental toughness. Almost anyone could line up behind center for Spurrier and play well, but the ones who excel, think Danny Weurffel or Shane Matthews, are the ones with mental toughness. They are able to endure Spurrier's criticism and inclination to bench his quarterback and use them as learning tools. Those who cannot handle it either transfer or get so rattled by being yanked in and out of the lineup that they begin to tune things out, always fearing the next bad pass (think Blake Mitchell).
Which category does Beecher fall into? He hasn't been benched yet, but rest assured it is coming, either for a series or for a game. But he has had his ability questioned, when after his first big scrimmage, Spurrier said, "If he's going to play, he can't play like this." As Spurrier was saying that, Beecher stood some 10 yards away and was even harder on himself than the Ball Coach. He responded by coming out in the next scrimmage and making strong decisions, especially in the areas he had struggled previously. If that first case of adversity is an indicator of things to come, Beecher has the makeup needed to thrive under Spurrier. The offensive weapons are there for Beecher to succeed, and if he continues to respond like that, he should have a very good, though probably not spectacular season.
3. How will Carolina's backfield perform this season following the loss of Cory Boyd?
Jonathan Jolley: Cory Boyd was one of the most passionate and fearless players to ever don the Garnet and Black. He will certainly be missed, both as a leader and as a proven weapon out of the backfield. But with senior Mike Davis and highly touted sophomore Brian Maddox returning this fall, the running back position is in good hands. The USC coaches have raved about Davis and the offseason that he's had, showing up this fall quicker and more explosive than he's ever been. Maddox, after learning the ropes as a freshman last season, has made great strides in the no. 2 role as well. Veterans Bobby Wallace and Taylor Rank, along with talented freshman Eric Baker, could vie for carries as well this season.
Despite Boyd's 903 yards rushing (5.0 yards per carry) last season, many don't realize that the Gamecocks finished dead last in the SEC in rushing offense in 2007 - a statistic that was somewhat skewed by the 31 sacks USC surrendered. But there's still nowhere to go but up from a statistical standpoint, and the Gamecocks - running behind what should be a better offensive line - hope to show significant improvement in the ground game this fall.
Davis, who needs just 609 yards this season to become one of USC's top ten all-time rushing leaders, has yet to put together a complete season for the Gamecocks, but he's shown flashes of being a very good featured back during his first three years on campus. If he can put together the strong, consistent senior season the USC coaches believe he's capable of, and Maddox performs as well as he has in the preseason, the Gamecocks' ground game should be more than serviceable this fall and will likely rank near the middle of the SEC in rushing offense.
I have been especially impressed with Brian Maddox, who looks like a completely different player than early in the spring. He is running with confidence now and seems content to be a north-south runner rather than trying to be a scat-back. He is also finding the hole and hitting it with authority, something he didn't always do in the spring. While Davis is a solid threat as a receiver out of the backfield, Boyd was exceptional, and you will see Maddox excel in that area as well. He was a lethal threat in that area in high school.
Boyd is a very talented player and he will be missed, but South Carolina finished last in the conference in rushing last season and attempted less rushes than every team but Ole Miss. The main reason they attempted such a small amount of rushes was the Gamecocks' uncanny ability to get behind by two touchdowns early and have to play catch-up the remainder of the game. If Davis and Maddox are healthy, look for more chances and thus more yards this year.
Christopher Wellbaum: The real loss here will be Boyd's leadership, not his talent. There is no shortage of ability, as running back may be the deepest position on the team and Spurrier has repeatedly talked about how confident he is in his top six backs. However, after Mike Davis, that talent is largely unproven and even Davis has a question mark. He has never put together an entire season, although there are some valid reasons why he hasn't done so (blocking, Cory Boyd, etc.).
Taylor Rank and Bobby Wallace have both shown flashes when given the opportunity to play. The fact that they have been passed on the depth chart by Brian Maddox and Eric Baker speaks to just how talented Maddox and Baker are. Running back might be the easiest position in football to fill, and there is no reason not to think that at least one of the running backs will step up to replace Boyd's production. Of course, the caveat here is that, as talented as Boyd was, his production was never that special. Last year, Boyd rushed for 903 yards, or just over 75 yards per game, and the Gamecocks were last in the SEC in rushing.
4. How is the receiving corps shaping up to complement Kenny McKinley this year?
Jonathan Jolley: The return of senior All-SEC wide receiver Kenny McKinley gives the Gamecocks one of the elite offensive playmakers in the country to throw to, but unlike last season when McKinley was often times the only viable receiving threat in the USC offense, the supporting cast of receivers should be much improved this fall. Sophomore Dion LeCorn, a Freshman All-SEC selection a year ago, came on strong late last season and emerged as a capable no. 2 receiver. He's expected to be solid again this year, but could be challenged by junior speedster Moe Brown, emerging freshman Charles "C.C." Whitlock, and talented second-year receivers Joseph Hills and Jason Barnes for positioning on the depth chart. Redshirt junior Freddie Brown aka "Steady Freddie" will also continue to see snaps and serve as a reliable complementary option at receiver.
The Gamecocks have a lot of young but unproven talent in the wide receiver corps, and while several of the aforementioned players have shown signs of coming on strong this preseason, we won't know for sure which ones will emerge as consistent weapons for the offense until the season kicks off. One thing is for sure - the Gamecocks have more depth and talent in the wide receiver corps this year than at any other point in the Steve Spurrier era. It's simply a matter of which receivers will step up and carry their play from the practice fields over to the stadium this fall.
The wildcard here is a trio of ultra-talented receivers, Moe Brown, Joe Hills and C.C. Whitlock. Each has a unique obstacle in the way of him making a big impact. Brown is a speedster with good hands who knows the offense, but he has struggled to take his practice performance to the game field. Hills has as much upside as any receiver on the roster and looked to be coming on in practice, but sprained his toe in last Wednesday's scrimmage. He has missed invaluable practice time that will undoubtedly slow his progression. C.C. Whitlock has battled numerous off-the-field issues (trips home, nagging injuries, etc.) on his way to still turning heads this fall. Whitlock is the type receiver Spurrier torched SEC defenses with at Florida and is very similar to McKinley.
The receiving corps can get by with just LeCorn and the tight ends complementing McKinley, but if one or more of the wildcards can step up they will quickly go from being a solid group to a top-tier SEC one.
Christopher Wellbaum: At first glance, this question seems a little bit odd. Didn't Dion LeCorn (16 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns in the final three games last season) step up last year as the guy opposite McKinley? Consider, though, that aside from changing the spelling of his last name, LeCorn has been pretty quiet heading into the season, and Spurrier likes to have four solid receivers to turn to. Adding to that, of the slew of receivers brought in prior to last season, the ones expected to make the biggest impact are now on defense (Chris Culliver and Mark Barnes, even Larry Freeman), and there is cause for concern. However, compared to a year ago, the Gamecocks are in good shape.
LeCorn should continue to be a solid complement to McKinley, but the biggest assist figures to be the tight ends (see next question). Elsewhere in the receiving corps, Moe Brown is one of the brightest players on the team and has plenty of talent, but he has struggled with his confidence. That has kept him from being much of a contributor, but Brown has been very good in practice this fall and may finally carry that over to Saturdays. Freddie Brown continues to be a big solid target on short routes, and Joe Hills has a natural ability that should get him on the field.
5. Just how good can USC's tight ends be this season?
Jonathan Jolley: South Carolina fans have waited a long time to see the tight end position become a featured weapon in the Gamecock offense. USC began to utilize the tight ends more in the passing game last season, but if the dynamic play of Jared Cook and Weslye Saunders during the spring and into fall camp has been any indication of what's to come this fall, the Garnet and Black clad faithful could witness one of the best tight end receiving tandems in the SEC, if not the country. That's a very high expectation to live up to, but as new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said during the spring - the combination of Cook and Saunders will cause a lot of headaches for opposing defensive coordinators this season, and both tight ends will be playing on Sundays one day.
Cook, who was timed last spring running a blazing 4.37 second forty yard dash and boasts nearly a 40-inch vertical, has always had freakish measurables. But the 6'5", 242 pound playmaker has taken his game to another level this year and is playing with supreme confidence heading into the 2008 season. Cook, a preseason third team All-SEC selection, is a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses, as he's too fast for linebackers to cover and too big for defensive backs to match up with. The 6'5", 274 pound Saunders is more of a traditional tight end, but runs extremely well for a player his size and has displayed soft hands as a receiving threat. The former 4-star recruit has had a tremendous offseason, completely reshaping his body and losing most of the "baby fat" that he had as a true freshman. The two tight ends complement each other well, and not surprisingly the USC coaches plan to utilize Cook and Saunders on the field at the same time a lot this fall with a variety of two tight end sets, especially in red zone situations.
The addition of new tight ends coach Ray Rychleski appears to have further helped the development of Cook and Saunders, as the veteran coach has placed an emphasis on the one area both players were lacking - blocking. Neither is an elite blocker at this stage, but both have responded well to the intense coaching of Rychleski and have worked hard this offseason to improve that aspect of their game. Saunders, specifically, has the size to develop into a complete tight end once he masters the blocking aspect of the position. Sophomore fullback/h-back Pat DiMarco will also see time as a blocking tight end this fall.
Obviously Cook and Saunders must carry over their play from the practice fields and translate that to success on game days, or it means nothing. But just how good can they be? If they live up to the expectations that many around the USC program have for them this fall - scary good.
Weslye Saunders has made a gigantic leap forward in terms of work ethic and knowledge of the position since last year. Saunders has completely re-shaped his body and looks primed for a 25-catch (or more) year. Tight ends coach Ray Rychleski isn't quick to offer too much praise for his young tight end, but that's probably because he doesn't want Saunders to get complacent. He has an NFL body type and NFL-type athleticism. Changes to the offense have been made to get these two on the field at the same time. Look for that to be a big part of the USC offense, especially in the red zone.
Christopher Wellbaum: In shorts, Jared Cook and Weslye Saunders are as talented and athletic as any tight end duo in the country. Last year, when you put them in pads, they lost some of that athleticism and disappeared at times during games. This year, they worked hard in the off-season and, with the addition of coach Ray Rychleski and his track record of sending tight ends to the NFL, they seem primed to have not one, but two breakout seasons. Cook has been slowed by a toe injury in camp, but Saunders has emerged as one of Beecher's favorite targets, especially in the red zone. Both have enough speed that coaches plan to use them off the line, either in the slot or on the edge, where they create all sorts of matchup problems.
The knock on the pair has been their blocking, and rightfully so. With his slender physique, Cook will probably never be anything more than at best a decent blocker, but he is at least improving in that direction. Saunders, on the other hand, has the potential to be a very good blocker, and he knows it. He has flashed that ability during camp, but has also drawn Rychleski's ire by occasionally taking plays off. Pat DiMarco takes over the Andy Boyd role as the dedicated blocker in the group, which should help open up even more receiving opportunities for Cook and Saunders. Cook should become the big play threat the Gamecocks have lacked since Sidney Rice left, and Saunders could easily lead the team in touchdown catches.
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