The month of January was a busy one for Steve Spurrier. In addition to wrapping up another highly-ranked recruiting class, he also hired four new assistant coaches. What is the biggest challenge each of these coaches face in their first year with the Gamecocks?
JOE ROBINSON (Special teams and tight ends coach): The former special teams guru at LSU didn't coach that unit at North Carolina in 2011, but he has been given the task of restoring the polish to a maligned group in recent years.
Biggest Challenge: Find someone to kick the ball into the end zone.
Synopsis: A contributor to USC's struggles in kickoff coverage the last few years has been the inability of their specialists to kick the ball into the end zone and force touchbacks. In 2008, Ryan Succop had 25 touchbacks on 61 kickoffs, a percentage of 41.0 percent. However, since Succop left for a now lucrative NFL career (he signed a five-year, $14 million extension in late December), the percentage has fallen to a meager 7.6 percent (16 of 212). Last season, Jay Wooten had touchbacks on six of 71 kickoffs (8.5 pct)) one year after he had five touchbacks in 65 kickoffs. In 2009, the year after Succop left, Adam Yates and Spencer Lanning combined for one touchback on 59 kickoffs.
Outlook: Is incoming freshman Nick St. Germain the answer to USC's recent kickoff woes? The first placekicker signed to a scholarship since Succop in 2005, St. Germain averaged 68 yards on kickoffs with 121 touchbacks in his career? How about redshirt freshman Landon Ard from South Pointe? He joined the program last summer, but did not see the field this past season. Yates should return, as well, for his senior season. A possible rule change might help matters. Looking to ensure greater player safety on kickoffs, the NCAA Football Rules Committee announced late last week that it would recommend kickoffs be moved up five yards to the 35-yard line rather than the 30-yard line. The tradeoff? Touchbacks would result in the ball being placed at the 25-yard line instead of the 20.
KIRK BOTKIN (Linebackers and Spurs): Botkin returns to the college coaching ranks after two seasons at Texas High School in Texarkana, Texas. Linebackers could be the most experienced unit on the Gamecocks in 2012.
Biggest Challenge: Develop the younger linebackers in order to prepare them to take over in 2013.
Synopsis: Barring a major upset, three-quarters of the linebacker corps for 2012 is set with Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens and Quin Smith returning for their final seasons with the Gamecocks. All enjoyed solid years in 2011. With most of the snaps expected to be taken by seniors (if Qua Gilchrist is able to remain injury-free and Damario Jeffery makes a successful transition to OLB, the five primary LBs could all be seniors), Botkin must devote precious practice time (especially in the spring) in order to accelerate the progress of several younger, promising linebackers such as Cedrick Cooper, Edward Muldrow, Angelo Watley, Marcquis Roberts and Mason Harris. Of course, how much action they get when the season finally rolls around remains to be seen.
Outlook: Spurrier's philosophy about spring practice hasn't changed much over the years. He believes the 15 practices in March and April should be targeted towards developing the younger players. So look for Cooper, Muldrow, Watley and Roberts to learn by doing under the watchful eye of Botkin. Clearly, the future of the position could depend on it.
EVERETTE SANDS (Running Backs): The day he was named USC's new running backs coach, he instantly became the envy of many colleagues throughout the country. Why? He now gets to coach Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Lattimore, of course.
Biggest Challenge: Keep Lattimore healthy.
Synopsis: After staying injury-free throughout high school, Lattimore's progress at USC has been short-circuited a bit by a series of injuries capped last season when he suffered torn knee ligaments at Mississippi State that sidelined him for the final six games of the season. In 2010, he earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors despite missing essentially 2-1/2 games because of misfortune. No telling what kind of numbers Lattimore will be able to put up if he stays on the field for all 12 regular season games. Last season, he averaged 116.9 rushing yards in seven games, finishing with 818 total yards on the ground. Extend his per-game average over 12 games and Lattimore would have accumulated about 1,400 yards heading into the bowl game.
Outlook: As long as he stays healthy, Lattimore will be one of the best running backs in the country in 2012. USC was able to overcome his injury last season by first relying on a true freshman (Brandon Wilds) and then on a read option attack directed by quarterback Connor Shaw. The depth will get only better in 2012 with four-star running back Mike Davis joining the program this summer. But the focus remains Lattimore, and it will remain that way until he leaves Columbia for a career in the NFL. Will 2012 be his final season in a Gamecock uniform? USC fans hope not.
GRADY BROWN (Secondary): USC and Southern Miss ended up trading defensive back coaches when Jeep Hunter was hired a couple of days ago by USM head coach Ellis Johnson, formerly the Assistant Head Coach for Defense for the Gamecocks. Brown is regarded as an up-and-comer who led the Golden Eagles secondary to one of their best seasons in recent memory (7th nationally in pass efficiency defense thanks to eight interceptions returned for TDs),
Biggest Challenge: Stabilize the cornerback position.
Synopsis: The return of fifth-year senior Akeem Auguste from a severe foot injury that sidelined him for all but one game last season, together with the losses of three major contributors in 2011 (Stephon Gilmore, C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett) will assure that Brown's first season with USC will be interesting. Auguste redshirted and will be counted on for his leadership in 2012. Losing Gilmore was the biggest blow because he had a year of eligibility remaining, but chose to pursue his NFL dreams. Auguste will be counted on for leadership because the rest of the cornerbacks are relatively inexperienced.
Outlook: How well the cornerbacks perform could depend in large part on Victor Hampton, who displayed flashes of his talents last season and will be counted on to assume a starting role next season with Gilmore moving on to the NFL. Ahmad Christian, currently playing baseball, is projected as the third cornerback, but he should battle Hampton in the spring for the starting job. Jimmy Legree is expected to move from safety to cornerback. The secondary depth took a hit when Martay Mattox decided to transfer following a dispute with coaches over playing time.
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