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August 3, 2013

The Morning After: Day 1 takeaways

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1. The hit.

Entering the Bluff Road Proving Grounds on Friday night, junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney drew the biggest cheer from the crowd, many of whom had assembled more than an hour before practice began to tailgate and drink in the atmosphere of the opening of fall camp.

It didn't take Clowney long to top that and - once again - go viral. Teaming up on a tackling sled with sophomore defensive end Gerald Dixon, the pair rocked the sled backward, then upward, then over on its back like a dead bug. It clearly wanted no more part of Clowney, and the roar that went up when that happened was the loudest noise of the night from the crowd of approximately 700 or so who packed the grounds to catch a glimpse of, at least according to Georgia coach Mark Richt, the best football player in the world.

2. The fight.

Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the fact that it was late in practice, with maybe 10 minutes left. Or maybe it was just a case of two young guys eager to make a name for themselves and not back down.

Whatever the case, the helmet-flinging, shirt grabbing, haymaker-swapping donnybrook between freshman offensive lineman Na'Ty Rodgers (6-foot-5, 296) and sophomore defensive tackle Deon Green (6-4, 287) in the scrimmage just before practice ended looked like something out of a Transformers movie, as each one held the other's jersey with one hand and swung for the fences at each other with the other. I counted about 10 roundhouses thrown by each player, and no one - not a player, not a coach, not an equipment manager - did anything but get out of the way and cheer.

After practice, Connor Shaw said he loved the spirit of his lineman. For his part, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward was equally happy to see some ferocity, playfully asking "what fight?" when asked about it after practice. The takeaway? Both men didn't back down, and both lines are more tough and physical than they've been in some time.

3. The arm.

From a purely passing perspective, Dylan Thompson was heads-and-shoulders above Connor Shaw. Shoot, Perry Orth was above Connor Shaw Friday night.

The way the ball came out of Thompson's hand was as impressive as any Gamecock thrower in recent memory. There was a quickness and fire to his passes that his delivery doesn't look like it's going to achieve, but when the ball leaves his hand, it gets downfield angry and on-target.

Shaw, on the other hand, struggled to make his throws across the field and across his body, almost as if his shoulder was nagging him, though it wasn't, as he told reporters after the game that he's never felt more healthy. He also said he's glad for the competition and that the team is fortunate to have more than one guy who can go in there and get the job done.

But if Shaw's passing game doesn't improve (he threw what would have been a pick-six to Victor Hampton on his second throw of the night) and Thompson's continues to, head coach Steve Spurrier might be inclined to give the junior signal caller more chances than not should Shaw keep misfiring.

4. The catch.

Like he has done so many times, Bruce Ellington ran straight down the right sideline, turned right for half a second then spun left effortlessly, leaving senior cornerback Jimmy Legree a twisted, helpless mess and Ellington all alone to catch the pass from Thompson on his hip and turn upfield by himself.

When you look for leaders on this team, when you look for role models, when you ask yourself the rhetorical question of who can replace Marcus Lattimore for his work ethic and talent, look no further than Bruce Almighty. There's just nothing he can't do on a football field despite his size (5-9), and he does it all without looking like he's trying and with a smile on his face.

On a night when two other receivers with more promise than Ellington did not participate, it never hurts to remind oneself what a remarkable talent - and person - Ellington is.

5. The no-shows.

Practically the first thing I do at practice is tally who's there and who's not. With so many offensive and defensive players walking across Bluff Road at the same time, the best way is to write all the numbers down as they come through, then once everyone is inside the gates and practice starts, go through and begin crossing off names one by one.

Friday, when I got to the end, the names left were a shocker - sophomores Jerell Adams and Shaq Roland; arguably the two most-talented pass catchers on the entire team and two players who will be counted on heavily to carry an offense looking to replace two guys in Ace Sanders and Justice Cunningham who parlayed their skill sets to the NFL.

Even more of a shocker is that with so much on the line for this season for both, both ran afoul of their summer school attendance policy (Spurrier said if they hopefully "learn to go to class better," they'll be back for tonight's practice). The dig last year on Roland, a South Carolina Mr. Football, was that he didn't work as hard as he needed to in practice. The result was limited time in games and an uneven season that seemed to feature as many drops as memorable catches. However, like fellow receiver Shamier Jeffery, all indications over the summer were that Roland had buckled down hard and improved; in fact, Shaw listed Roland's improvement as the most impressive of the off-season when asked after practice.

Hopefully, both will be back tonight and on their game. If USC is to stay in the top 10 through Sept. 8, they'll likely need both of those guys to play and contribute.

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