Forty-four practices and seven months of waiting stand between South Carolina and the 2012 season opener at Vanderbilt on Aug. 30. Which five USC players stand the best chance of experiencing a breakout season and raising their profile among Gamecock fans and the rest of the SEC?
1. K.J. Brent (WR): I've been on Brent's bandwagon since last August when I watched him catch everything thrown his way in pre-season workouts. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Brent has excellent body control, velcro hands and knows how to get open. Even Steve Spurrier marveled to reporters about Brent's abilities following a pre-season scrimmage. After a redshirt season, will Brent convert his impressive physical skills into production on the field during games? That question remains unanswered.
Right now, WR coach Steve Spurrier Jr. is looking for someone above six-feet tall to step up and grab a starting spot. Except for Alshon Jeffery, of course, nobody did in 2011. If Brent succeeds in that endeavor, he could become USC's top "tall receiver" in the wake of Jeffery's expected early departure to the NFL.
2. Rory Anderson (TE): As the backup tight end, Anderson caught just eight passes last season. But one was a memorable 55-yarder against Clemson. In addition, three of his eight receptions went for touchdowns, an indication of Anderson's potential as a red zone threat. His TD catch on a fourth down play at Tennessee was a key moment during the 2011 season. Something else stands out about Anderson - his gaudy average of 23.5 yards per catch, highest on the team.
Anderson played as a true freshman because of his impressive skills as a blocker, a requirement of the position. Obviously, he will still be listed behind Justice Cunningham on the depth chart at tight end, but Anderson's role should expand in 2012 as his knowledge of the offense increases in his second year with the program. We've seen the tight end position grow in stature in the NFL this season. Anderson is a reason USC should look to the TE spot for an offensive boost in 2012.
3. Chaz Sutton (DE): Momentum has been slowly building for Sutton, a four-star prospect when he was signed out of Savannah, Ga., three years ago. But injuries (left hamstring, shoulder) held him back for the first two years until last season when he appeared in all 12 games as the fourth defensive end and totaled 13 tackles, 3.5 TFL and one quarterback hurry.
Melvin Ingram's exit means Sutton leaps one spot on the ladder. He's still behind Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney on the depth chart, but as potentially the third defensive end in the rotation, his playing time should increase. When he has played, Sutton has displayed flashes of his ability. In 2012, he should receive even more chances.
4. Cedrick Cooper (LB): Like Brent, Cooper hasn't yet stepped onto the field in a live game. But the skills and work ethic he showed last summer while conditioning and in August during pre-season camp weren't missed by the USC coaches. Ellis Johnson raved about Cooper and thought long and hard about giving him a chance during a game.
But Johnson eventually decided to redshirt the 6-foot-2, 207 pound native of Lithonia, Ga. Rodney Paulk's departure opens the door for Cooper to share snaps at middle linebacker with Shaq Wilson. Because USC's most experienced linebackers are all seniors (Wilson, Reginald Bowens, Quin Smith), Cooper represents the future for USC beyond 2012 at the position.
5. Kelcy Quarles (DT): The second half of the 2011 season offered us a glimpse of Quarles' vast potential as the Greenwood, S.C. native, started the final six games as a true freshman alongside senior Travian Robertson and showed enough development to make D-Line coach Brad Lawing smile. He finished his initial season with 28 tackles and four QB pressures, encouraging numbers for a first-year player.
But great things were predicted for Quarles the moment he signed his letter of intent in February of 2010. It took a semester at Fork Union and becoming accustomed to major college football before he started his upward trajectory. Now, he will become "The Man" at defensive tackle and by this point next year should be considered one of the best in the SEC at his position.
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