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January 9, 2013

Hood: A tantalizing tale of two surgeries

Three days after South Carolina's exciting, last-second victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl, the school's athletics media relations department issued a press release announcing that quarterback Connor Shaw (left foot) and redshirt freshman linebacker Cedrick Cooper (torn left ACL) had undergone successful surgeries.

Neither surgery was unexpected, although they occurred for vastly different injuries. Shaw originally injured his foot during the Oct. 27 game against Tennessee and hobbled through the Arkansas game until sitting out the Clemson game, setting the stage for Dylan Thompson's heroics.

Shaw started the Outback Bowl, and appeared on the verge of leading USC down the field on a potential game-winning drive when he aggravated the foot injury.

Thompson was called upon once again, and he delivered under pressure for the third time this season as he lofted a beautiful 32-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds left for the winning points.

Cooper, though, never got the chance to play in the Outback Bowl after appearing in 11 games, mostly on special teams. He tore up his knee during a bowl practice prior to Christmas.

Two players, two injuries and, as we have seen, two different reactions from the media and Gamecock fan base.

News of Shaw's surgery was greeted with a frenzy when people realized he wouldn't participate in spring practice, which is expected to start in mid-March.

Cooper, meanwhile, curiously became an afterthought. I rarely saw his name in a headline, unlike Shaw.

Instead, the reactions should have been reversed.

A starting quarterback in the SEC is always going to grab a disproportionate amount of attention, so it's hardly a surprise Shaw's more familiar name was invoked over and over again by the media.

However, the harsh reality is that Cooper's injury should be far more disconcerting to Gamecock supporters than Shaw's foot ailment.

Why? Easy. Shaw doesn't need spring practice. He will be a rising senior with 20 career starts, 449 passes attempted and 32 touchdown passes on his resume.

He knows the playbook frontward and backward. He knows the signals. He understands what Steve Spurrier wants, expects and demands from the quarterback position.

So much so that had he been healthy, his number of snaps would have been limited had Spurrier stuck to his philosophy that the spring is mainly for developing younger, less experienced players.

So, even with a healthy Shaw, Thompson (he's only thrown 129 passes in his career), rising redshirt freshman Brendan Nosovitch and newcomer Connor Mitch would have garnered most of the snaps throughout the 15 spring workouts in order to accelerate their growth.

Shaw's job for the next eight months is straightforward: Get ready for the Aug. 31 season-opener against North Carolina. Frankly, since bad news travels at the speed of light and good news travels at the speed of a turtle, the less we hear about Shaw between now and Aug. 1, the better.

He enters next season with a career completion percentage of 67.5 percent (154-of-228) for 3,627 yards and 32 touchdowns. Shaw has little left to prove, though he can always improve.

But there will be plenty of time for accomplishing that during the summer months and preseason camp.

Cooper, on the other hand, needs all the practice time he can get prior to the start of the 2013 season, so missing spring practice constitutes a significant setback, both personally and for a linebacker group undergoing a major overhaul.

As most Gamecock fans know, USC is losing four seniors at the middle linebacker and weakside linebacker spots - Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens, Damario Jeffery and Quin Smith.

Together, those four players combined for 216 tackles, including a team-high 86 by Wilson and 59 by Bowens.

Of course, it will be very difficult to replace that level of production because the new players all lack experience. Cooper was being eyed as the starter at outside linebacker with Kaiwan Lewis in the middle.

Because he will be relied upon extensively this upcoming season, Lewis played this past year as a true freshman because the coaches wanted to get him acclimated to being on the field. He had two tackles in 11 games.

Same for Cooper. But now his injury, which occurred in mid-December, will keep him off the field until at least August.

Thus, a position already dangerously thin must somehow endure through spring practice with Lewis, T.J. Holloman, Mason Harris (likely moving from defensive end) and perhaps Kelvin Rainey (moving from tight end?), along with an unknown number of walk-ons, each benefiting from a significant number of practice reps.

Linebacker depth promised to be a concern for 2013, and Cooper's injury has only intensified - and brought a greater sense of urgency to - the situation.

As long as his knee heals properly, Cooper has the 29 practices in August to get everything right before the games start.

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