Forty-four practices and seven months of waiting stand between South Carolina and the 2012 season opener at Vanderbilt on Aug. 30. The anticipation and expectations for the upcoming season will be off-the-charts when August finally arrives. What are some of the position battles Gamecock fans should look forward to heading into Steve Spurrier's eighth season as head coach.
1. Both Offensive Tackle Spots: If there is any position where the baton is being handed off from the old to the new, this is it. Out of the combined 26 total starts at the two tackle spots, 17 were made by seniors Kyle Nunn and Rokevious Watkins. The remaining nine starts were taken by freshmen Mike Matulis (5) and Cody Gibson (4). Both will be sophomores in 2012. What does all that youth mean? The door is open for talented redshirt freshman Brandon Shell (6-6, 322 pounds) and true freshman Brock Stadnik (6-5, 285) to battle for starting spots during spring practice.
Shell and Stadnik were both highly-regarded, four-star prospects when they enrolled at USC. Theoretically, USC could have a pair of freshmen starting at both tackle spots in the season opener at Vanderbilt. That's a long way from this past season when a pair of fifth-year seniors started the first four games until Nunn suffered the back injury that kept him out of the lineup for the next eight weeks.
2. Outside Linebacker: Is there a more evenly matched competition on the Gamecocks than outside linebacker where Reginald Bowens (44 tackles) and Quin Smith (48) combined for 92 tackles from that position in 2011. Both players know that barring a major injury they will be on the field, but which one will earn the right to start? Bowens, a physically gifted defender who was finally healthy after battling injuries for three years, started eight games, while Smith started four times (Rodney Paulk was credited with the start at OLB vs. The Citadel).
Smith was very active last season with six tackles for loss and one fumble recovery. The presence of a proven pair of seniors at outside linebacker means there could be little playing time for anybody else. As a result, up-and-comers like Angelo Watley, Edward Muldrow and Marcquis Roberts must wait their turn.
3. The Successor to Alshon Jeffery: So, who replaces arguably the top receiver in school history? Not an easy task for sure, and certainly not a mission for the faint of heart. But someone must fill the outside receiver spot once filled prolifically by Jeffery, who left USC after establishing a new school record for most career receiving yards. In the spring, taller receivers like D.L. Moore, Lamar Scruggs, DeAngelo Smith, K.J. Brent and Shamier Jeffery should all get an opportunity to show what they can do. When pre-season camps starts, the incoming trio of Shaq Roland, Kwinton Smith and Jody Fuller will get a chance to break into the lineup.
The intriguing question is whether veterans like Moore, Scruggs and Smith (11 combined catches in 2011) will be able to hold off the new crop. Based on the performances (and potential) shown by Brent and Jeffery in pre-season camp last August, it could only be a matter of time before they fight their way onto the depth chart, if not starting roles. Roland clearly has the skill set to contribute immediately, and Fuller and Smith aren't far behind.
4. Defensive Tackle: The winner here will essentially replace the solid Travian Robertson, who was overshadowed by Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney last season, but was a very productive player in his own right. We know Kelcy Quarles (28 tackles and 4 QB pressures in 2011) will probably start at one defensive tackle spot unless he unexpectedly slips down the ladder. The other spot, though, is entirely up for grabs between a long list of candidates starting with rising seniors Byron Jerideau (7 tackles in 2011; brief flirtation with OL) and Aldrick Fordham (9 tackles), redshirt sophomore J.T. Surratt (2 tackles), 2011 signees Phillip Dukes, Deon Green and Gerald Dixon, Jr., and mammoth sophomore Corey Robinson (6-8, 350 pounds), a former offensive lineman.
Out of that group, Fordham has by far the most experience, and he's been a favorite of D-Line coach Brad Lawing for three years ever since he was thrown into the mix as a true freshman because of a lack of numbers. The youthfulness of Dukes and Dixon, Jr. belie their size, strength and talents. Both should be major factors in 2012. Lawing has high hopes for the underrated Green, as well. The Orlando, Fla. native, sat out last season after undergoing knee surgery.
5. Punter and Placekicker: Both of USC's kickers in 2011 - field goal and kickoff specialist Jay Wooten and punter Joey Scribner Howard - were seniors, so new special teams coordinator Joe Robinson will literally start from scratch when he finally gets the opportunity to work with his players starting March 12 when spring practice is scheduled to begin. Patrick Fish lost a close battle last August with Scribner-Howard, who averaged 38.9 yards per punt, and enters the spring as the favorite to take the punting job. However, the bowl roster lists one other punter- Mike Williamson of Norway, S.C. - and we don't know who will literally walk off the USC campus into the football offices and ask for a tryout.
Wooten didn't get many chances to attempt field goals in 2011 (tied for SEC-low with 11 FG attempts), but was mostly accurate except for the puzzling miss from chip shot range in the Capital One Bowl. Rising senior Adam Yates would appear to be the logical successor, but he hasn't attempted a field goal since joining the USC program in 2008. He handled the bulk of the kickoff duties in 2009 (49 of 59 kickoffs) and averaged 61.8 yards per boot with one touchback. Landon Ard from Rock Hill, S.C., joined the program last fall from South Pointe High School. Nick St. Germain (McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Ga.) arrives in the summer and, like Fish, will be on scholarship. Thus, he will get every opportunity to win the placekicking job.
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