Sunday's practice in full pads was the fifth of preseason camp. Here are 10 things we've learned since the Gamecocks walked onto The Proving Grounds for the first time.
1. It's all about speed, speed, speed: The words spoken by Assistant Head Coach for Defense Ellis Johnson during his introductory teleconference in 2008 still reverberate around the USC program. During the teleconference, Johnson said he looked for three things on defense in the SEC: Speed, speed, speed. Well, early indications are this year's Gamecock team will be plenty fast, with newcomers like running back Shon Carson and wide receivers Damiere Byrd and Bruce Ellington on offense and, of course, Jadeveon Clowney on defense. Even Ace Sanders appears faster. I've always said the "S" in SEC stands for speed and this team finally measures up. Rarely will it face a faster team this season as it seeks its second straight SEC East crown.
Will there be a faster or more lethal defensive end trio in the country than Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram and Clowney? If so, it will be hard to beat. Here's Taylor talking: "The line this year will probably be one of the fastest lines we've had. We get faster and faster every year and more athletic. I would say this is one of the best lines we've had."
2. You can't fit 10 receivers into six spots: USC wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. has some tough decisions to make in the coming weeks. He claims he has at last 10 receivers good enough to play on his roster, but only six spots to fill when it's time to start preparing for the 2011 season opener. Alshon Jeffery is a given to be one of the six. But who will be the other five? The 10 candidates are, in numerical order, Byrd (jersey number 3), Jason Barnes (4), DeAngelo Smith (6), Shamier Jeffery (8), Sanders (9), Nick Jones (10), Lamar Scruggs (11), Ellington (23), K.J. Brent (80) and D.L. Moore (82).
The perception a few weeks ago was USC had Jeffery and a bunch of average joes behind him. But the first five practice days have shown that's not the case. Byrd is just a true freshman, but can you justify leaving that kind of speed on the bench? Barnes has an edge in experience, but will he outperform the young guns like Sanders? Will Smith be able to duplicate the magic he showed in the spring? And on and on. Too many questions, not enough answers right now.
3. Alshon is still Alshon: Just when you think a pass is thrown too high, too low or too wide, Jeffery will go up, down or sideways to make the catch. He's comfortable doing it any way. No other receiver in the country makes the extraordinary catch look so effortless. When camp opened last week, rumors and speculation were running wild on message boards that Jeffery was out of shape. But that wasn't the case. Jeffery spent the entire summer working out with the rest of the team and with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald and appears to be in excellent shape and his fitness is top-notch.
Stephen Garcia spoke wisely when he was asked Sunday how much confidence he has in Jeffery, who had a school-record 88 receptions for 1,517 yards in 2010. Here is how Garcia replied: "How many catches did he have last year? I'm pretty confident in throwing to him. It makes my job easy."
4. Multiple weapons on offense is a good thing: Steve Spurrier constantly bragged that USC had the No. 1 running back in the country in Marcus Lattimore and the No. 1 wide receiver in Jeffery during the spring Fan Fest tour and then into the summer months during what he refers to as the "talking time" in late July. If USC plays its cards right, it should be able to play one against the other, causing migraines for opposing defenses.
You rarely fool players and they realize the 2011 Gamecocks are loaded with potential and possibly headed towards a special season. But that's all it is right now. Potential, as we know, is nothing more than an unfulfilled promise. But if the Gamecocks put it all together and utilize the weapons they have, watch out.
Here is what Garcia said on Sunday about USC and its plethora of offensive weapons: "It keeps the defense on their toes and makes sure they're aware of all the possibilities we have. They can break a tackle and are gone for 80 yards. When there's a big third down, you throw a little fade route to Alshon. You can hand the ball off to Lattimore and he'll run 95 yards for a touchdown or 5 yards for a first down. It's the best offense we've had since I've been here. The offensive line has worked so hard in the offseason. Thankfully, I was out here and we have a special team here."
5. Clowney is a beast: So far, Clowney has lived up to the hype. If you disagree, go ask the USC offensive tackles what a nightmare blocking Clowney has been in the first five practices. So far, it's not happening very often. Clowney has lived in the offensive backfield during the daily full team (11-on-11) drill and could literally have dozens of sacks if the Gamecocks allowed defenders to hit their quarterbacks.
How will Clowney be used? In lots and lots of different ways. Before the season is over, he'll probably line up at both defensive end spots with his hand on the ground, start from a stand-up position or even play some outside linebacker. Johnson clearly has a number of available options with him.
"It's going to be different," Clowney admitted on Sunday. "They want me to be a playmaker but everyone is a playmaker. I'll do my part. Whatever coach tells me to do - outside, in - the playbook is hard to learn but I'm going to get it. I'll be moved end to end, probably."
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