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September 17, 2013

Bye week storylines

South Carolina has earned a 2-1 record so far this season and is in the midst of a bye week before a challenging road game at Central Florida next weekend. In this feature, GamecockCentral.com's Chris Clark takes a closer look at some of the main storylines that have unfolded through three games and some to watch before the next time the Gamecocks line up in Orlando.

Center controversy?

South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott has his unit off to a good start so far this season. It was expected by everyone around the program that the five guys up front would take a step forward this season and so far the group has lived up to its billing. The lone newcomer to the offensive line was redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop who earned himself a starting position in the offseason at center. After just one game, Waldrop was sidelined with a foot injury which forced another redshirt freshman in Clayton Stadnik into action as his replacement.

It was a spot that appeared concerning, given that Elliott previously said publicly that Waldrop was way in front of Stadnik during preseason camp for the starting job and at one point Stadnik had been replaced by true freshman Alan Knott as the backup. All of it must have served as motivation for the Greensboro product, because Stadnik has responded in a big way. He played well on the road at Georgia despite a few high snaps in his very first college football game in Athens. Against Vanderbilt, he had another very good effort and no snap issues. To top it off, he graded out at 82 percent and earned SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors. Steve Spurrier said recently that the staff was hopeful Waldrop could be back after the bye week, and if that turns out to be the case then Elliott will have a decision to make on which player to start given how well Stadnik has played in relief.

Special teams changes

More than once, Spurrier has come out in defense of special teams coach Joe Robinson, saying that he is one of the best in the country at what he does. The Head Ball Coach, by the way, is not the only person that thinks that as Robinson has a strong reputation in coaching circles. The Gamecock special teams units have not been up to par in the early going, highlighted by a couple of big gaffes against Vanderbilt. According to Spurrier, the solution is that the coaching staff needs to give Robinson some more experienced players.

Coverage and return units on special teams normally feature several players from the linebacker and secondary positions, both groups that South Carolina has less-than-ideal depth and/or experience. It is possible that going forward we could see more starters or key players contributing on special teams in an effort to get better production. The return game has also been interesting in the early going; Victor Hampton began the season as the punt returner but after he was banged up in that role against UNC Bruce Ellington took over. Shon Carson has not been productive during his kick return opportunities and committed a costly error with his fumble against Vanderbilt. During the bye week, the Gamecock staff will be no doubt be looking to find some answers from a personnel standpoint. When the team lines up next weekend against UCF, we could see some new faces at returner and on coverage/return teams.

Figuring out MIKE

Heading into the Vanderbilt game, the coaching staff made it known that true freshmen Larenz Bryant and Jonathan Walton could be factoring in with more snaps on defense. Bryant was moved to spur from WILL linebacker and Walton figured to see some more time at his MIKE position. Bryant indeed played more at spur, as he was in there on the second play of the game and played more throughout the course of the game. However, Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman got the snaps in the middle of the defense during the Vandy game.

It was known going into this season that USC's youth at linebacker would show through, particularly against strong offensive teams and squads that are adept at running the football. USC's linebackers struggled at times against Georgia and although the defense played well overall against Vanderbilt (three of Vanderbilt's four scoring drives started in USC territory) the team had a lot of trouble stopping the Commodores' "wildcat" look. Vanderbilt ran that play 14 times and racked up 6.5 yards per carry on it with some big chunks of yardage earned on several plays. Looking back on the game, one of the biggest issues appeared to be linebackers getting out of position, not fitting correctly, or failing to get off of blocks which allowed Vandy running back Wesley Tate to gash the defense at times. Lewis and Holloman combined for one tackle in that game (Lewis is currently third on the team with 17 tackles overall). The WILL position has been better overall in terms of production; will the staff be preparing Walton to play more? Or will some tweaks be made to get the middle of the defense playing better using the existing personnel? Will Cedrick Cooper's return at WILL somehow help both groups?

Getting healthy

The Gamecocks are healthy overall coming off of the Vanderbilt game with no major injuries, but it is always nice to have a week to get a break. The bye week will afford USC that opportunity and some guys will rest or heal some minor injuries. Chaz Sutton and Jadeveon Clowney both have foot issues that can cause pain at times and staying off the wheels for an extra few days will help them.

Mike Davis slightly sprained his left ankle on Saturday, but the injury did not appear serious. The aforementioned Waldrop injury will also get some more time to be assessed. Kadetrix Marcus missed the Georgia game due to a shoulder injury and was also banged up against Vanderbilt, though he returned. Even though the season is young, three competitive early tilts can cause some bumps and bruises that USC will have an opportunity to try to get rid of before heading to Orlando.

Leaders wanted

After the defense struggled against a talented Georgia offense in Athens, a few issues with the defense jumped out as points of emphasis for correction. Several players did not have strong games and the game left little doubt the defense needed to improve going forward. One of the more glaring issues that became apparent after the Georgia game was that USC needed some leadership on the defensive side of the ball. The Gamecocks lost several seniors from last year's defense including the heart and soul in D.J. Swearinger, not only a productive and versatile player but an outspoken and vocal leader.

With a team that is still very young overall, the onus falls on the veterans South Carolina does have on defense to step up and lead by words or actions. Kelcy Quarles did not play well against Georgia but rebounded against Vanderbilt and was getting fired up during the game. Chaz Sutton and Jimmy Legree are seniors and Vic Hampton is a fourth-year player. J.J. Marcus is a first-year starter but has always been one of USC's more vocal players on defense. Some or all of those guys must provide not only big plays, but leadership for USC's defense the remainder of this season. Who steps up in the future is something we will have to wait to see.

GCTV: Looking Back at Week 3

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