South Carolina's 2012 sophomore class features some of the best players on the Gamecocks, including the former No. 1 prospect in the country. How do the sophomores stack up? Here are the top five and the best of the rest:
1. Jadeveon Clowney (DE): Was there any doubt who the top sophomore would be? Of course not. Clowney is being counted on to take the next logical step and fulfill his limitless potential by becoming a mega-star in the SEC. Clowney thrived under the microscope in 2011 by being named the SEC Freshman of the Year by the league's coaches and the SEC Defensive Freshman of the Year by Rivals.com. He dominated late in the season with stellar performances against Clemson (one sack) and Nebraska (two sacks).
2. Kelcy Quarles (DT): The son of a former Gamecock player, Quarles made his move halfway through last season when he took over the starting job at the defensive tackle spot alongside Travian Robertson. With Robertson gone, Quarles takes on the challenge of being USC's top defensive tackle, and the ensuing attention (read: double teams) from opposing offensive lines warranting his status. He started the final six games in 2011 and finished with 28 tackles, becoming a force in the middle for USC.
3. A.J. Cann (LG): After sitting out in 2010 in order to gain size and strength, the 6-foot-4, 309-pound Cann started every game last season at left guard and proved to be a reliable blocker for the Gamecocks. He was named a Freshman All-America by multiple media outlets. Together with senior center T.J. Johnson, USC appears set in the interior of the offensive line. Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott quickly recognized Cann's potential a year ago and gave him as many reps in the spring of 2011 as possible. All that work paid off, and he'll look to become an All-SEC caliber offensive lineman.
4. Rory Anderson (TE): He spent last season as Justice Cunningham's backup at tight end, but displayed plenty of big-play ability. He had eight receptions, three for touchdowns, including a memorable fourth-down reception for a 23-yard score at Tennessee. His average of 23.5 yards per catch attests his catch-and-run skills. He should take on a larger role in 2012 with Cunningham entering his senior season. Along with Drew Owens, Kelvin Rainey and Jerell Adams, Anderson represents the future at one of the deepest positions on the team.
5. Bruce Ellington (WR): In basketball, Ellington is heading into his junior campaign, but in football he's a redshirt sophomore, so he qualifies for the list. One of the finest all-around talents on the Gamecocks, he's capable of playing wide receiver (17 receptions in 2011), running back (17 rushes for 106 yards), kick returner (23.1 average on 20 kickoffs) and Wildcat quarterback (3-of-4 passing for 27 yards). For a while, it looked like Ellington wouldn't return to football, saying he would play basketball exclusively in 2012-13, but changed his mind. With a year of experience in the program under his belt, Ellington should be more comfortable and more productive this season.
BEST OF THE REST:
Damiere Byrd (WR): The "Jersey Jet" had just one reception in 2011, but USC wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier, Jr., eyes a bigger role for him starting this season. You can't teach speed, and Byrd, the fastest player of the team, possesses plenty of it.
Victor Hampton (CB): Once an enigma, Hampton is maturing both as a player and a person. Hopefully, that will lead to more consistent play this season. Once he learns to gamble less, Hampton will turn into an outstanding SEC cornerback.
Nick Jones (WR): Sometimes lost behind Byrd, Ellington and Ace Sanders, Jones was a solid receiver in 2011 and figures to be in the mix for regular playing time this season. He had 12 receptions for 143 yards and one touchdown last year as a redshirt freshman. Besides his TD grab against Kentucky, his biggest catch of the year might have been his key 34-yard completion in the win over Navy.
Kadetrix Marcus (SS): Appeared in six games last season, mostly on special teams. He is listed as the backup behind Brison Williams at strong safety and hopes to combine with him to fill the void left by DeVonte Holloman, who has moved to spur.
Mike Matulis (OT): Even though he missed spring practice while rehabbing a shoulder surgery, Matulis was listed as the starting right tackle on the pre-spring depth chart and nothing has seemingly changed over the past 3-1/2 months. Matulis received a baptism under fire a year ago when he thrown into the starting lineup against Auburn as a true freshman. He initially struggled, but ended up starting five games in 2011.
Brandon Wilds (RB): When Marcus Lattimore went down with a knee injury last season, many people assumed USC's running game would sink into the abyss. Wilds responded with a 28-carry, 137-yard performance against Tennessee, the first of three 100-yard rushing efforts on the season. He'll compete for the No. 2 role behind Lattimore in 2012, but faces stiff competition from Kenny Miles, Shon Carson and incoming freshman Mike Davis.
Brison Williams (SS): The favorite to take over from Holloman as the starter at strong safety. He bounced back strong from a broken forearm injury suffered early in pre-season camp that forced him to miss the first four games of the season. He eventually appeared in eight games with one start (Florida). He collected 11 tackles. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward loves his potential and he could be a three-year starter at the strong safety spot as long he performs.
Also receiving consideration: Patrick Fish, Cody Gibson, Sharrod Golightly, Corey Robinson, Cadarious Sanders, J.T. Surratt, Dylan Thompson.
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