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August 9, 2013

Seven potential breakout players

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South Carolina's football team is loaded with players who haven't yet realized their full potential in garnet and black, but who have the potential and the opportunity to do so this fall. Here's a look at a few of them that could blossom into big-time players in 2013.

Ahmad Christian

The sophomore cornerback from Jacksonville, Fla., looks to see a lot of playing time this fall despite missing the entire spring while playing for USC's baseball team. Right now he's practicing behind Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton at the field and boundary corner positions, but defensive backs coach Grady Brown said after Wednesday night's practice that Christian could earn a starting job if either Legree or Hampton begins to struggle.

If not, Christian still stands to see plenty of playing time at nickel corner. The 5-10, 189-pounder who grabbed eight tackles and two pass breakups in 12 games last season told me recently he feels good about where he stands on the defense.

"I feel comfortable. I put in a lot of work this summer, so I felt like the start of practice has been good," Christian said. "I don't feel like I've missed anything. I'm used to bouncing back between sports."

Shon Carson

If there's ever been a player to underachieve in his first two collegiate seasons, it's Shon Carson. The 5-foot-8, 219-pounder worked his way up to second string early in his true freshman season, but tore his ACL on his third carry of the season against Georgia. Carson also missed most of 2012 with a wrist injury, but burned his medical redshirt to play in the Outback Bowl, where he caught two passes for one yard. To cap it off, he missed spring practice while playing on USC's baseball team, where he saw limited action.

But before all of that, Carson rushed for 2,280 yards and 33 touchdowns as a high school senior at Lake City High, and he's looking to make an impact this season. Often overlooked behind the one-two punch of Davis and Wilds, Carson has all the skills to be a sparkplug for the offense as a third-down back, where he told me he expects to be used this season.

Jerell Adams

One look at Adams and you get the feeling he could have a long career playing on Sundays. The sophomore tight end is massive at 6-6, 237 pounds, but can get also up and down the field in a hurry. His first season in garnet and black saw him catch four passes for 90 yards and a touchdown - good for SEC All-Freshman honors - but Adams was even more impressive in the spring.

Making appearances for both teams in the Garnet and Black Spring Game, Adams hauled in five catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns and looked like a legitimate deep threat throughout. With the departure of Justice Cunningham and the lack of a tall wideout to emerge so far in preseason practice, Adams could see an abundance of passes thrown his this fall.

Nick Jones

The shortest player on the team at 5-foot-7, 174 pounds, Jones had to wait a season for Ace Sanders to clear the depth chart before he could step into a starting role, and he's starving to pick up the lion's share of the receptions that Sanders' departure will leave on the table. Jones' production and playing time increased exponentially as last season progressed, and he told me recently he's confident he can keep that pace this season.

Mike Davis

Believer it or not, Davis still qualifies for this list. Outside of the state of South Carolina, not many have been exposed to USC's bouncing bounder of a tailback. His stat line of 52 carries, 275 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman last season won't turn heads across the nation (after all, he finished ranked tied for 314th among FBS running backs in terms of rushing production), but it's his potential that has so many pundits exciting about what his future holds.

Splitting carries with Brandon Wilds could actually benefit Davis' production this season; he'll likely get the majority of the carries, but Wilds should see enough snaps to keep Davis fresh and rested. If Davis can be the number one guy and still maintain his rate of 5.3 yards per carry, he'll turn heads across the country this season.

Landon Ard

A walk-on kicker who played with Jadeveon Clowney in high school, Ard became famous for an unflattering reason last season. Brought onto the field to perform an outside kick against LSU in Death Valley, ESPN cameras caught Ard wearing glasses underneath his helmet. Twitter exploded, ESPN personalities openly made fun of him, and Ard - who suffers from a condition that causes his eyes to cross when he takes his glasses off - suffered the consequences.

But all the ridicule in the world can't change the fact that Ard can absolutely plaster a football. There's still a position battle yet to shape up with he, scholarship kick Nick St. Germain and a few other walk-ons, but I like Ard's chances of proving himself this year - and I love his chances of launching more than a few kickoffs out of the back of the end zone.

Chaz Sutton

Sutton faces the unenviable task of replacing Devin Taylor opposite of superstar, probable No. 1 draft pick, YouTube sensation and personal sideshow Jadeveon Clowney on the defensive line this fall, but it's hard to find anyone who doesn't think he's up to the task.

Sutton has started just twice in his five-year career at South Carolina, but playing in 37 games over the past four seasons has left him as one of the team's most experienced players. Sutton is expected to be a leader in the locker room, and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said at South Carolina's Media Day that starting alongside Clowney will give the senior every opportunity to have a terrific season.

"People are going to gear up their protection to Clowney, and that should leave other guys, at least two of the three other guys, in one-on-one situations. We expect to win those one-on-one battles," Ward said. "Chaz Sutton is going to be a really good football player here. If he doesn't have a breakout year, it's going to be on him. I don't think they're going to double team Chaz Sutton."

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