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September 21, 2013

Insider roundtable

In this special feature, Gamecock Central's football insiders answer five questions about the Gamecocks.

1. Do you believe this is a good week to have a bye for South Carolina? Who are some players or a position that could benefit from this bye week?

JOSH LOW: I think it is a good week for the defense, special teams and players that are banged up a little bit. I'm sure the offense wouldn't mind to be playing this week. They have been good through the first three weeks and it would be nice for them to get back on the field again. The youth on the defense needs as much coaching as possible, definitely the linebacker position. It is a good time to get Cedrick Cooper more involved as well. Another good thing is that they do have two weeks to prepare for UCF. This the perfect trap game and having this much time to hear about them will help. Steve Spurrier has been good at South Carolina after bye weeks.

SCOTT HOOD: Yes. Across the board, the USC players and coaches believe the bye week fell at a good time with three difficult games in the books. Obviously, players like Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Cody Waldrop are trying to heal up from foot ailments. It will also give the coaches and players an opportunity to evaluate what's happened in the first quarter since four of the next five games are on the road.

RON AIKEN: It's a great week for a bye, especially with the recent news about Jadeveon Clowney's foot. While Spurrier may have wanted to play an Austin Peay, I think the players were all ready to have a weekend off and a week to get hungry for football again once UCF rolls around.

CHRIS CLARK: It is indeed a good week for some time off for USC for a few reasons. While the Gamecocks do not have any major injuries, even through three games there are bumps and bruises that need to heal. Running back Mike Davis can rest his ankle that he slightly sprained against Vanderbilt and Chaz Sutton and Jadeveon Clowney can stay off the wheels for an extra week as well.

The biggest benefit could come from just a pure planning standpoint for the USC coaching staff. The defense played much better at home against Vanderbilt than the previous week against Georgia, but there were still some areas of concern that need to be addressed. Namely, USC is still trying to find the right answers within a youthful corps of linebackers. It has already been announced that Cedrick Cooper could see some time at MIKE linebacker to increase production there. The staff and players can take the bonus time this week (and then next week during game preparations) to try to find some answers on that front.

2. There has been a lot of conversation about why South Carolina scheduled UCF at their place this season. What are your thoughts on the Gamecocks having to go to Orlando this season to play UCF?

JOSH LOW: I'm not a fan of playing games like this. It is like a no-win situation for South Carolina. I understand what the contract says, but I would stay away from games like this in the future. If the game was at home then I would be more in favor of it. With three other non-conference games for South Carolina besides Clemson, I would stick with an ACC school and then two home games, one against an in-state school like Coastal Carolina and the other against someone like Troy.

SCOTT HOOD: As Spurrier says, it is what is. It's part of a home-and-home series with UCF coming to Columbia in the future. I see a positive for USC in that the game will elevate their profile in the state of Florida. USC still has seven home game, so it won't affect them financially.

RON AIKEN: I have no problem with the game whatsoever and don't know why anyone would. It's a solid regional program, South Carolina recruits Florida and the Gamecocks already have two ACC schools on this year's schedule and one smaller, in-state foe in Coastal Carolina.

CHRIS CLARK: USC signed a contract a few years back for a home-and-home series with UCF and this is the first game in that series. UCF will return the favor in 2015 with a trip to Williams-Brice. The contract stipulates for each road team to receive a $300,000 guarantee to cover expenses in the two games.

As for the game itself, it has the look of one of those classic road "trap" games for South Carolina so the Gamecock staff and players will need to be ready. While UCF's initial three-game stretch has been far from difficult (Akron, FIU, and Penn State), the Golden Knights are undefeated and the team has shown it can put up points. UCF will also return a couple of starters that were missing from the previous game against Penn State. South Carolina has been much better at home than on the road lately and while this UCF team isn't Florida, LSU, or Georgia, it's still a game that USC will have to play very well in to win.

3. It was a bad night for the South Carolina special teams against Vanderbilt. What are some changes you could see happening in the group to improve?

JOSH LOW: The obvious change needs to happen at returner and it looks like that is going to happen. Bruce Ellington is the more experienced and probably the best kick returner on the roster. It sounds like Victor Hampton will be the punt returner. He can make some big plays happen back there, but his decision making isn't the best. That is what would concern me about Hampton at punt returner. It isn't just the returner's fault. The blocking has been pretty bad. They need better players on this unit and I know the fans aren't going to like it. They need more of the starters to play special teams.

SCOTT HOOD: It was clear after the Vanderbilt game that USC needed playmakers handling the ball on special teams and better blocking in front of the returners. Victor Hampton will return to handling punts (good move if he learns to fair catch) and Bruce Ellington will take over kickoffs now that he's 100 percent healthy from the hamstring injury. But they need better blocking too.

RON AIKEN: As we learned Wednesday, Bruce Ellington will be moving back to kickoff returns, and I'm happy with him there. Against Vanderbilt he filled in at punt return for the dinged-up Voctor Hampton, but Hampton came back late in the game and will resume the punt return duties he began the season with. I don't like that, mind you, because I don't think Hampton is a either a breakaway threat or a good decision-maker back there. He runs when he should fair catch, runs backward when he should run forward and doesn't know how not to take a big hit. He's a nightmare returner, and I do not believe that with the group of talent on that team that there isn't someone who could do that far more effectively.

CHRIS CLARK: A lot of the time, a coach is only as good as the players he has and a unit is going to perform as well as the personnel that is on it. Steve Spurrier has come out in support of Joe Robinson, who has a strong reputation as a special teams coach and said that the staff has to make sure it gets him some better players on return and coverage units. Positions like linebacker and defensive back that normally contribute heavily to special teams have a deficiency of experience and quality depth this season, so it could be that more starters play going forward. Either way, we should be seeing some new faces on the field the next time USC lines up in Orlando.

Additionally, what will become of the returners? Shon Carson had a tough stint as a kick returner, with nothing doing in Athens and then a costly fumble at home against Vanderbilt. It appears his audition there may be over; Bruce Ellington has plenty of experience there and could step back into that role. Ellington and Victor Hampton have both returned punts this season; will it be one of them or will USC try out someone else?

4. What has been the biggest positive and disappointment so far this season for the Gamecocks through three games?

JOSH LOW: The biggest positive has to be the offense. If you are looking for something more specific, then it is the offensive line. This was the year this group needed to step up and be a strength for this team and they have done exactly that through three games. At times they have even dominated during games. Enough can't be said about Clayton Stadnik and his play in two games with the injury to Cody Waldrop. I think the player that has improved the most on this unit is Brandon Shell. He has been pretty good this year.

The biggest disappointment has to be somewhere on the defensive side of the ball. I think the group that has disappointed the most is the secondary. They are actually returning a few starters, but they aren't all there yet. They have veterans at cornerback but are still having busted coverages. I was really expecting Brison Williams to have a breakout year, but he has been nonexistent so far. I think this group needs to step up, play better, and be better leaders.

SCOTT HOOD: The biggest positives have been the emergence of Mike Davis and Nick Jones on offense. We all knew Davis was talented, but he has been better than expected. Jones has finally stepped into the spotlight after playing a reserve role in 2011 and 2012. The biggest disappointment was the performance of the USC defense at Georgia and the second half scoring. seventy-eight percent of USC's points have come in the first half.

RON AIKEN: Biggest positive: the entire offense, from Mike Davis to Connor Shaw to a receiving corps that keeps getting the job done. Biggest disappointment: special teams, for the above reasons. You just can't be an elite team and be dead last in punting, 13th in kickoff return and 12th in punt return.

CHRIS CLARK: I thought that this Gamecock offense would be the strongest in a while and maybe ever under Spurrier in Columbia given the returning personnel on that side of the ball, but several guys have stepped up to surpass even pretty high expectations.

Connor Shaw has played outstanding and efficient football with the exception of a fumble against Georgia. USC's running backs, led by Mike Davis have been very strong. Nick Jones has stepped up at receiver and the offensive line looks like it has indeed taken that step forward that most expected it to take going into the season if three games is any indication. How about Clayton Stadnik? He has to be considered the surprise of the year individually. In a month's time, he has gone from being briefly replaced as the backup center by a true freshman to winning SEC offensive lineman of the week honors after his second career start.

The disappointment would come on the defensive side of the ball in general. USC did not look prepared to play against Georgia on the road, even though the Bulldogs have an experienced and talented offense. The performance against Vanderbilt was overblown by some fans (all three of Vanderbilt's touchdown drives started in USC territory, including two inside the 20), but there were still some areas of concern that showed through such as trouble stopping the wildcat look. USC's youth at linebacker has been apparent the past two games and while it was known that the group would have a lot of growing pains this season it would help the defense greatly to find some solutions there. The Gamecocks must also perform more consistently on the defensive line and in the secondary although both of those groups rebounded against Vanderbilt for the most part.

5. What is one thing Gamecock fans need to know about UCF going into next week?

JOSH LOW: The offense is legit. They are led by a pretty dang good quarterback named Blake Bortles. I wouldn't be surprised if he plays on Sundays. They have several weapons at receiver that can make plays happen. They also have a good running back named Storm Johnson. He originally signed with Miami out of high school as a four-star recruit before transferring to UCF. This offense can put up a lot of points.

SCOTT HOOD: UCF is chomping at the bit for another opportunity to knock off a team from a major BCS conference, and full of confidence after beating Penn State in Happy Valley. They have a very savvy quarterback, a strong running back, and at least one top-shelf wide receiver. Stopping the Knights will be a challenge for the USC defense.

RON AIKEN: That the Knights went on the road and beat Penn State, which means their home crowd and team will be psyched for this game, which is the second-biggest home game for UCF this year (the UCF-South Florida rivalry game will mean more to them). Offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe has beaten SEC teams before, George O'Leary is a couple of resume fibs from perhaps still being the coach at Notre Dame and this program would love nothing more than to catch a sleepy South Carolina team looking ahead and give them the shock of their lives.

GCTV: Recruiting Report with Alyssa Lang & Chris Clark:

CHRIS CLARK: The Golden Knights can score. Quarterback Blake Bortles is one of the most efficient signal-callers in the country in the early part of the season and can distribute the ball in a smart way to his receivers. UCF has also shown it can run the ball. With a defense that had its worst game so far this season on the road, the effort will need to be better this time around to give USC its best chance to win.

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