Gamecocks get physical in first day in shells

USC's third practice of the preseason saw the emergence of a physical aspect that allowed for more contact during drills and thus bigger hits. The sound of helmets and shoulder pads colliding with great force filled the Proving Grounds on another warm Palmetto State evening, although Steve Spurrier said that during parts of Thursday's practice he believed it may have been a little over the top.


"We certainly had a spirited practice, some good things and some bad things here and there," Spurrier said following the workout. "We had a couple of hard hits in pass skeleton that I didn't like."

But the hard hitting had started well before the pass skeleton drills.

Offensive Line Coach Eric Wolford had proclaimed Wednesday evening that he was looking forward to seeing his players practice in pads, and he wasted no time taking advantage of the added protection during Thursday's session.

For one of the first drills, Wolford and Defensive Line Coach Brad Lawning decided to let players' from their respective units "go at it". In this one-on-one drill, with the only goal being to knock the opposing player on his rear end, players gave the fans on hand a glimpse at how brutal life down in the trenches of SEC football can be. Whether it was intended to or not, the immense physicality of the drill dictated the tone for the entire practice.

Running back Bryce Sherman was the first of several players on the receiving end of a hard knock during the passing drills. As Sherman sprinted down the sidelines on a wheel route, he lunged forward in an attempt to haul in a pass and was met abruptly by safety Blake Baxley.

"I thought I was going to come down with (the football), but he hit me and knocked it loose," said the freshman speedster of the contact.

But Baxley's hit on the young running back was only meager in comparison to the ones that followed.

Quarterback Reid McCollum attempted to connect with receiver Stephen Flint on a 15-yard out pattern, but freshman cornerback Jimmy Legree got a hand in front of the pass and tipped the ball away. As Flint returned to the ground from his attempted leap to catch the ball, he received a bone-jarring hit from freshman safety DeVonte Holloman.



Freshman safety DeVonte Holloman delivered one of the biggest hits of the night in Thursday's practice.


Spurrier started to walk in Holloman's direction but stopped when he saw Coach Lorenzo Ward giving Holloman an earful about the unnecessary roughness.

"I don't like hitting receivers like that because it's different than if a guy is running right at you," Spurrier said of the devastating hit.

Ironically, onlookers at the practice got to see the latter scenario just moments later.

With the exception of the hit by Holloman, the defense had been "wrapping up" ball carriers all night rather than tackling them. But when junior running back Brian Maddox broke through a gaping hole in the line and had only safety Darian Stewart to beat, the two showed they had differing understandings of how physical the play was supposed to be. With a thunderous smack, Maddox put his head down and ran right over Stewart like a Mack truck.

"(Stewart) wasn't expecting it, but Brian (Maddox) was just running." Spurrier said of the play. "D-Stew just got caught off balance and run right over, but that doesn't happen to him often."


Passing game showing signs of progress, young receivers impressing

Spurrier said that starting quarterback Stephen Garcia performed "ok" in the practice. Perhaps Garcia's best throw of the night was his first during the 11-on-11 drills. Receiver Jason Barnes beat corner Stephon Gilmore on a deep post pattern, and Garcia delivered the ball to him perfectly in stride.

"He threw a couple good ones to Jason," Spurrier said of Garcia. "He's still got to get his fundamentals a little better."

Spurrier hinted that Garcia may still be tucking the ball and running a little more often than he would like, but also noted that he has improved some in that aspect.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Reid McCollum, the No. 2 signal-caller according to Spurrier, continues to show off his strong arm, throwing darts to receivers who are 20-30 yards downfield. He launched a 55 yard bomb to freshman receiver Alshon Jeffery, who made a great grab on the sidelines, barely getting his feet down in bounds.

"It was a jump ball," the head coach said about the pass. "Reid (McCollum) can throw it a long way, and that was just Alshon doing the rest."

It didn't take Jeffery, a heralded four-star recruit in the 2009 class, long to begin showing off his ability as a naturally gifted wideout for the Gamecocks. During his first three practices with the team, Jeffery has drawn attention for some of the highlight catches on both deep balls and fades that he has been able to bring in.

"Alshon can come down with the balls, he's one of those guys that it's worth tossing 2-3 times up in the air and seeing what happens. He's got a knack for going and getting it," Spurrier proclaimed. "He's got timing, he can jump. We've certainly learned that in the past few days. He might be our best jump ball guy. Most defensive backs are only 5-8 or 5-9, and some are 6-0. A tall receiver like Alshon's got an advantage there like Sidney (Rice) did."

Senior wide receiver and team leader Moe Brown echoed Spurrier's sentiments, stating he's already seen the natural ability Jeffery brings to the field.

"Alshon's got some talent. He's pretty good off the line. We've got to teach him to keep running once he makes a good move, but that's just something you've got to learn. He's used to just going up and getting the ball," Brown said. "As far as talent-wise, he's definitely got some ability."

True freshman Demario Bennett came to South Carolina much less heralded than Jeffery, but he has already earned the respect of his teammates and coaches with his smooth play and surprisingly polished route running as a young receiver.

"Demario is a very smooth, polished receiver. I've been impressed with him since he first got here. He's definitely impressed me with his route running and his ability to catch the ball. I think he's one of the top freshman wide receivers as far as being polished and ready to play," Brown stated. "I think he's one of the top ones."



Senior Moe Brown, seen above with several of his fellow receivers, believes USC's wide receiver corps will surprise this season.


With the combination of young playmakers and returning veterans, Brown believes USC's wide receiver corps can make a lot of noise this season, despite not having a household name like Kenny McKinley or Sidney Rice to headline the group this preseason.

"I've been saying it all preseason. We've got a very talented receiving group. When we get it clicking on all cylinders, we can cause problems for a lot of people," he insisted. "I think as far as talent-wise, you're not going to find a more talented group. It just comes down to executing. We can be very scary. I really believe that."


Notes:

- Junior cornerback Addison Williams suffered a slightly pulled hamstring in Thursday's workout, according to Spurrier.

- "Pudgy" was the word that Spurrier used to describe JUCO offensive line transfers Rokevious Watkins and Steven Singleton. But he noted the Gamecocks signed them when they were "pudgy," so that combined with them not going through Coach Craig Fitzgerald's summer conditioning program means they've got some ground to make up physically, in comparison to the returning linemen.

- Spurrier said that the offensive line protection was "a little" better in Thursday's practice. He credited the defense for "flying around" and said it was an overall "good practice."

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