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December 12, 2013

3 up, 3 down

A look at some players who took the next step this season and a few who didn't live up to the hype.

Up

The linebackers. South Carolina's youth at linebacker was easily the team's biggest concern before the season. The unit had lost its entire two-deep over the offseason, and it was starting over from scratch with group of incoming freshmen and a few returners with a comically small amount of experience.

As expected, the linebackers struggled at first. Second-year coach Kirk Botkin spent most of the season mixing and matching his pieces to find the right combination of linebackers on the field, injuries took their toll, and their inexperience was exploited throughout the first half of the season.

But starting with the Arkansas game, the unit began pulling its own weight in the defense. Sharrod Golightly developed a nose for the football and established himself as the best option at Spur, second-year players Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman learned how to split time at Mike linebacker - combining for 88 tackles - and true freshman Skai Moore played like a madman - earning the starting job at Will, intercepting two passes, and leading the team with 51 tackles.

Backup Mike linebacker Marcquis Roberts also had a productive season, ranking third on the team with 46 tackles and adding 1.5 sacks and a pair of pass breakups.

For a unit that was considered the team's weakest heading into the season, it will probably be the defense's strongest next season.


Shaq Roland. Shaq Roland has been a wild card at South Carolina from the minute he stepped onto campus. From the time he was wearing a Lexington High School jersey, no one questioned his talent. But his work ethic, preparedness and focus were in doubt after a five-catch, 80-yard, one touchdown freshman campaign where he rarely saw the field.

Roland did plenty in his sophomore season to ease those doubts, catching 19 passes for 343 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers sound less than impressive until you consider that he was suspended for three games midway through the season and was phased out of the offense immediately after his return.

The Lexington, S.C., native caught a total of one pass for four yards against Tennessee and Missouri combined, but he performed well through seven other games this season, and he showed a new maturity by battling back into the coaches' favor with four touchdowns in the final four games.

Roland got open nearly as often as he was covered this season, showed a vastly improved understanding of the playbook from the season before, and did some things on the field that really made you wonder why he wasn't being targeted more (re: last drive of the Georgia game). The sophomore also replaced Rory Anderson as South Carolina's home run hitter, turning over 26 percent of his catches into touchdowns, the best percentage of any player on the team with more than four catches.

Even with the entire receiving corps returning next season, Roland is poised for a breakout, 1,000-yard kind of season, especially with the pass-happy Dylan Thompson at the helm.


Mike Davis. Davis' wide array of talents are now recognized by nearly anyone not living under a rock, but not many knew how good he could be before South Carolina kicked off against North Carolina on Aug. 29. Davis had shown flashes of brilliance in a freshman season where he carried the ball 52 times for 275 yards - most of them after Marcus Lattimore's season-ending injury. But at the time, that's all they were - flashes. Davis was a nice change of pace in the running game his freshman season, but not an every-down option.

Like Roland, Davis was very much a wild card heading into this season, but he broke out in his sophomore season to become one of the best tailbacks in the country, tallying 1,476 total yards and 11 touchdowns, despite wearing down at the end of the year, missing a game, and splitting carries with Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson and Jamari Smith.

Davis also established himself as a consistent offensive force, topping 100 total yards in nine games and forcing opposing defenses to load the box against him in the latter half of the season - which, in turn, opened up passing lanes for Connor Shaw.

For his efforts, Davis drew comparisons to Emmitt Smith from NFL scouts, proved more talented than his older brother, James Davis, and garnered a letter from the Heisman Trophy Trust congratulating him on his season.


Down.

Chaz Sutton. It was well-known before the season that teams were going to run their offenses away from All-America defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. They would throw two or three blockers at him at a time, and they would do anything to keep Clowney from controlling the outcome of the game.

Anchoring the other side of the line, supposedly unblockable in one-on-one situations, was Chaz Sutton, the dynamic pass-rusher who would take no prisoners as he ransacked opposing backfields.

What really happened was that Clowney faced multiple blockers on nearly every play, offenses did run plays in the opposite direction, and Chaz Sutton didn't deliver in the epic proportions that most media members had anticipated.

Though Clowney's presence on the other side of the line placed right tackles on a tee for Sutton to demolish, and despite opposing ball carriers almost always running in his direction, Sutton managed just 29 tackles - 7.5 of them for loss - four quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles - though one of them was a huge strip-and-recovery of Tajh Boyd in the Clemson game.

Even with the circumstances working in his favor, Sutton was ultimately a downgrade from South Carolina's defensive end play a season ago, when Devin Taylor logged 40 tackles - 8.5 of them for loss - three sacks, five pass breakups and three hurries.


The tight ends. Before the season, media members, coaches and fans alike fawned over South Carolina's group of NFL-caliber tight ends. They were coming off a season where they combined for 41 catches, 685 yards and six touchdowns, and they were considered by some to be the best group of pass-catching tight ends in the country.

Several of them reinforced that notion during the fall, saying they wanted to show off their talents this season. South Carolina fans even wondered if Rory Anderson, coming off a five-touchdown 2012 campaign, would parlay a big season into an opportunity to leave early for the NFL draft.

But in 2013, the tight ends were the red-headed stepchildren of the offense, catching just 29 passes for 418 yards and one measly touchdown, which Connor Shaw threw to a wide-open Jerell Adams in the end zone against Mississippi State.

The tight ends, now being covered by defenses not wishing to get burned like they were in 2012, just weren't open enough this season, and the additional attention they demanded allowed wide receivers and running backs to spring open in the secondary.

The good news for South Carolina is that Rory Anderson, Jerell Adams and Drew Owens should all be back next season, and they will continue to help the offense in one way or another - even if they don't show up on the stat sheet for it.


Punting game. South Carolina was the worst punting team in the SEC in 2012, averaging 38.66 yards per punt. Still, South Carolina's special teamers were optimistic during preseason camp that 2013 would be their year, with Patrick Fish mentioning that either he or the starter, Tyler Hull, could become one of the SEC's best punters. After all, there's nowhere to go but up from last place, right?

Wrong. The Gamecocks again finished dead last in the league, averaging just 37.27 yards per punt this time around. Misery of watching 25-yard punts sail left and right abounded, though the occasional punt of 45 yards or more nearly brought tears of joy.

South Carolina's struggles punting the football brought more frustration than actual problems this season, though the Gamecocks often fell behind in the battle of field position in tight games. For example, both of Tennessee's scoring drives in the fourth quarter came after Hull punts that didn't travel 40 yards.

But on the bright side, at least Patrick Fish can spin a ball to himself and kick it through the uprights on request.



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