Gamecocks return to practice fields

Following the first of their two bye weeks, the Gamecocks returned to practice Monday after taking the weekend off. The time off gave Carolina a chance to recover from some nagging injuries and refocus as they head into the stretch run. Monday's practice also gave the team a chance to ease into the cold temperatures they figure to deal with the remainder of the year.

"We've got our windbreakers on for the first time this year," Steve Spurrier said following practice in the 60 degree weather. "They had a little bounce today. It was a good practice: we ran a lot of plays, nobody got hurt."

Running backs Mike Davis (knee) and Eric Baker (concussion) both returned to practice Monday, after missing the last week of practice due to injury. Both appeared fine and are slated to be the top two backs on Saturday against Tennessee. Thus ended the short-lived tenure of Kenny Miles as the starting running back, and he returns to his redshirt status.

"They were both healthy," reported Spurrier. "Kenny Miles had some help today. It looks like Mike Davis and Eric Baker are ready, and we'll try to redshirt Kenny Miles."

Quarterback Stephen Garcia, who sat out last Wednesday's workout with a sore shoulder, also returned to practice. Garcia is expected to make his second career start against the Volunteers, but Spurrier stopped short of naming the redshirt freshman as the starter.

"Right now we're planning on Stephen Garcia starting, but if Chris Smelley has a much better week in practice, it could be Smelley by the weekend," he said. "[Garcia] is fine. He was overthrowing a few downwind today. We've got to teach him when the wind's behind you, you don't aim as high."

However, not everyone returned from the break healthy. Tight end Jared Cook (foot) and guard Jamon Meredith (ankle) struggled with injuries. Meredith did some work during practice, but Cook was sidelined. Both could return to practice later in the week and then play on Saturday, but it is a day-to-day situation for each. Spurrier noted that the bye helped both recover from injury, though he noted that Cook's injury happened during the bye week, not a game.

"He got hurt during practice on the open date, so maybe he wouldn't have got hurt if we were playing," Spurrier mused. "He's hobbling around. Hopefully he'll be able to run around on Wednesday."

"We have two open dates, after the eighth and the eleventh game," he continued. "I think if we had our choice, we'd have them after four and eight."

Meredith is further along than Cook, which is important given that South Carolina is already without guard Heath Batchelor. With Batchelor suspended, the Gamecocks are down to three experienced guards, and losing Meredith would make them perilously thin. Fortunately, Spurrier has confidence in Lemuel Jeanpierre and Terrence Campbell, the two remaining guards.

"He's still hobbling around," said Spurrier. "We'll wait and see if he can do anything Tuesday or Wednesday. If not, we've got Lem ready and T.C. Campbell ready."

After practice, Spurrier also discussed the announcement last Friday that defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson received a contract extension, adding a year to his agreement. He said the decision was anticipated and designed to show stability with the staff.

"That was part of his original deal, that we'd renew it at the end of the year," Spurrier said. "We just thought it was a good time to go ahead and announce it. The defense has played exceptionally well this year. Hopefully it will help recruiting a little bit this time of year. Recruits like to know who's going to be there. Ellis' defense is a good one, and hopefully a lot of high school kids want to play for Carolina."

Saunders ready for starting role if called upon

With Jared Cook's status up in the air, sophomore tight end Weslye Saunders could be looking at his chance in the spotlight. Saunders was credited with starting two games earlier this season (against Wofford and Ole Miss), but he could be looking at his first chance to truly be the first team tight end. While Saunders doesn't enjoy seeing his friend and teammate hampered with injury, he is excited about the chance to be the man.

"I've been thinking about it," Saunders said. "I've been going into practice this week with the mentality that I'll be starting. If Jared comes back then obviously they'll rotate him back in the starting lineup. I just have to wait my turn and be patient."

It is a positive development for Saunders, who at one point earlier in the season was demoted to third string when coaches grew frustrated with his work ethic. The primary concern was Saunders' ineffective blocking, not his pass-catching prowess. His struggles were mental, rather than physical, so the coaches wanted to send a message. Fortunately, Saunders heard it loud and clear.

"My blocking is coming along great," he reported. "Now I've taken the mentality of blocking first and catching second. If you do the blocking part, then the catching comes along with it. It's coming along pretty nice for me."

That renewed focus has certainly come in handy for the Gamecocks. Saunders caught the game-winning touchdown against Kentucky, his first career score. He followed that up with his second touchdown the next week against LSU. Now he looks to make it three in a row against Tennessee.

"I certainly hope so," said Saunders. "I got one catch for 26 yards and a touchdown, and I didn't play the second half last week. Hopefully this week I can come out and help the team some more by scoring a touchdown or two."

As successful as his day against Kentucky was, Saunders did drop a pair of passes that would have gone for first downs. He promised following the game he would not drop anymore, and he held that promise against LSU. He admitted that after having played so little in recent games, his focus was not where it needed to be. Now that the coaches have shown confidence in him, he is better prepared to make big catches.

"Mentally I can honestly say I wasn't prepared when I went in" against Kentucky, he said. "Now I'm just going into each game thinking I'm going to play a lot, even though I might not. I don't think you'll see any more drops."

Part of that renewed focus comes as a product of the bye week. Typically, byes are seen as a chance to recover physically and get over nagging injuries. For Saunders, the bye was a chance to get refocused and recover mentally from the strain of eight straight games.

"This bye week couldn't have come at a better time," Saunders said. "It gave us a chance to reflect mentally as well as heal our wounds a little bit. We've gone out here knowing we've got to block better. The defense has been doing a favor for the offense, and we've got to come out and really prepare this week because Tennessee has a good defense."

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