With 30 days to go until the season-opener, five issues gripping South Carolina's football team as it prepares to open fall camp. Some may be resolved quickly, some may last throughout the season, but all are expected to be crucial issues as the Gamecocks embark on another journey.
USC is saying it can't see any reason why senior tight end Weslye Saunders won't be able to practice, so that's at least one good thing to come out of the NCAA investigation mess that has spread across the Southeast. It appears that one of the Gamecocks' most potentially great players will be suited up and ready for today's practice -- the question is how much he will be able to play later.
Should the investigation drag into the season, it stands to reason that Saunders won't be allowed to play. It would not be good to play him hoping for the best, then seeing a guilty verdict come down the pike and be forced to forfeit the win. There have been no new developments in the case and coach Steve Spurrier has said he will go with whatever decision the NCAA hands down, so it's a matter of simply waiting.
In the meantime, the Gamecocks have options. Patrick DiMarco was listed as the starting tight end after spring practice and is available, as well as backup Justice Cunningham. Cunningham is a much better blocker than Saunders is and can help shore up the offensive line, while DiMarco may not be as big of a target but has magnets for hands. Saunders' mission at practice is to go as hard as he can and show the coaches he is at least trying his best while his name is being researched.
4. WHAT'S MY LINE?
The problem is there and will not go away this season -- USC's offensive line, always a sore spot, is paper-thin.
While the group of projected starters (Jarriel King, Garrett Chisolm, T.J. Johnson, Terrence Campbell and Kyle Nunn) has experience and three seniors among it, the backups will have to quickly grow up. Of the Gamecocks' 14 available linemen, eight have never played a varsity snap; Spurrier has already said that three true freshmen (A.J. Cann, Ronald Patrick and Tramell Williams) will have to contribute right away.
Line coach Shawn Elliott has his hands full in his first year, but perhaps a change in offensive game-planning will be able to pull a surprise out of the group. Former line coach Eric Wolford pleaded for more running plays every game -- when he got his wish, the Gamecocks slipped into gear. Perhaps the line just hasn't been given enough opportunity to really show off.
The Gamecocks' spring practice session had several players sitting out due to surgery and rehabilitation, so tonight is their first chance for some real action. From all reports, Cliff Matthews, Travian Robertson, Chris Culliver and Rodney Paulk are healthy and ready to go.
Those four are certainly vital to the defense, Matthews and Robertson two starters on the line and Paulk lining up just behind. Culliver has moved to cornerback, a position where coaches feel he can really break out because he will be able to sniff out plays earlier than his previous free safety spot.
Robertson was having a terrific season until hurting his knee last year, while Paulk is coming off two years of injuries. Matthews will be the heart and soul of the unit, while Culliver brings several games worth of experience to his spot. The Gamecocks have the quartet back on the field, now to keep it there.
2. THE ROOKIE
Marcus Lattimore is strong. Marcus Lattimore is fast. Marcus Lattimore brings recruiting hype not usually associated with USC football to the Bluff Road practice fields beginning tonight.
One of the Gamecocks' most coveted prospects in history will participate in his first practice tonight and everyone is anxious to see what he will do. Sure, only so much can be gained from practice (especially in shorts and helmets), but just to see him tote the ball once after a gut-clinching recruitment period will make all of the nervous moments from February worth it.
Lattimore has handled the hype well and has been said to be very conscious of doing the off-the-field work already -- going to film study, conditioning, getting to know his teammates. The Gamecocks have a solid core of running backs and Lattimore is one of them; the level he stays at is up to him.
1. HBC VS. QB1
It has slowed, but the topic after the spring and through the summer was Spurrier's unrelenting criticism of quarterback Stephen Garcia. The coach has not been hesitant to point out the flaws of his starter, often lauding the talents of true freshman backup Connor Shaw and saying the Gamecocks have two QBs ready to play.
Not many can see Spurrier actually starting a true freshman quarterback in the SEC, but stranger things have happened. As long as Garcia shows he is handling the job, it won't happen.
Fact -- Garcia is the best option under center that USC has. His first full year of starting was good and now this is the year to really elevate. His teammates and roommate have said he has heard Spurrier's barbs and taken them to heart, working out whenever he can just to get some kind of repetitions in before he has to do it for real. That begins tonight.
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