Three More Pieces Added To Football Puzzle

The following is an entry from Scott Hood's blog ( Scott has served as a full-time beat writer for GamecockCentral since 2005, covering the South Carolina football, men's basketball and baseball programs.
I'm not prepared to say the 2009 South Carolina football team will be a runaway juggernaut, but the pieces appear to be falling in place for a nice season.
Of course, the Gamecocks must maneuver through the typically tough SEC schedule to accomplish that with road games at Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas.
With the start of the summer conditioning program a week away, this past week was crucial for USC's hopes. Don't underestimate the importance of the recent reinstatements of DT Ladi Ajiboye, OL Heath Batchelor and DB C.C. Whitlock back to the team.
Although all three players missed spring practice, nonetheless they should play significant roles in the fall.
Ajiboye has been USC's top interior defensive lineman for two years. Without him, Kenny Davis and Melvin Ingram received a lot of valuable experience in the spring, but neither one is ready to take on a heavy role against SEC quality offensive linemen at this point in their careers.
If Ajiboye returns to form (Freshman All-America in 2007 before being constantly double teamed in 2008, which resulted in a drop in production), I believe USC will have one of the top defensive tackle rotations in the SEC with Nathan Pepper and Travian Robertson ready to go as well.
Throw defensive ends Cliff Matthews and Clifton Geathers into the mix and USC has the recipe for an outstanding defensive line.
The primary weakness there is a lack of experienced depth, but there's no question players like Devin Taylor and Chaz Sutton are talented enough to play in the SEC.
New offensive line coach Eric Wolford hasn't had the chance to coach up Batchelor yet. The key question surrounding Batchelor is his physical and mental condition. He has spent the last several months at home in Haleyville, Ala. Hopefully, he's been working out routinely or the transition back could be a difficult one.
Batchelor redshirted in 2006, so that option is not available. With the offensive line still a work in progress under Wolford's guidance, Batchelor could prove to be a valuable member of the Gamecocks in 2009 with his experience.
If Batchelor finds his groove, he could be one of three offensive linemen who end up starting for the Gamecocks that didn't participate in spring practice.
Steven Singleton and Rokevious Watkins weren't signed out of Georgia Military College to sit on the bench, so they will be given, along with Batchelor, every opportunity to win a job.
Right now, the center (Garrett Anderson), left tackle (Jarriel King) and right guard (T.J. Johnson) appear stable, but the other two starting spots at left guard and right tackle are wide open.
And there are plenty of candidates for both.
Wolford's philosophy differs from predecessor John Hunt in that Wolford likes to utilize a rotation of eight players, while Hunt preferred to play the same five guys for the entire game.
As Wolford told me a couple of weeks ago, his goal in pre-season camp will be to find eight linemen who "know how to play the game."
As we know, that's been a challenge the last two years, to say the least.
Whitlock, meanwhile, might have the furthest to go before returning to the field. Since arriving on campus, a number of distractions have conspired to prevent Whitlock from fulfilling his enormous promise on the football field.
Granted, Whitlock has dug his own hole to a large degree, but it's widely known that a tumultuous family situation has contributed to his difficulties.
Hopefully, he can suppress the demons that have haunted him and regain his focus on football. No one is rooting for him harder than Ellis Johnson and Lorenzo Ward. As the spring showed, the depth at cornerback is shockingly thin.
Whitlock should earn the No. 3 cornerback job behind Akeem Auguste and Stephon Gilmore if he finds his way back onto the field Johnson and Ward would rather not rely on a true freshman and the diminutive Addison Williams struggled in the spring.
As Ajiboye, Batchelor and Whitlock prepare to rejoin the program, the following question has arisen: what should USC do about running back signee Ben Axon?
Axon, as most USC fans know by now, was arrested a couple of days ago in Bradenton, Fla. on the charge of possession of marijuana with intent to sell.
Should Spurrier cut Axon loose? No. First, we don't know yet if Axon will qualify. That's been an important issue USC signed him. Secondly, no decision of that magnitude will be taken until the legal process has run its course.
Remember, women's basketball coach Dawn Staley is dealing with a similar situation. One of her signees was recently arrested for robbery in Savannah. Staley hasn't wavered in her continuing support and has given no indication she intends to release the player from her scholarship.
And Staley is as tough-minded as they come. Obviously, she realizes this player made a horrendous mistake, and believes wholeheartedly this is not time to cut ties.
I believe Spurrier will take the same approach with Axon.
If Axon has a clean record, I suspect he'd probably cut a deal with the prosecutor and enter some type of P.T.I. program with Florida authorities.
A key component of this case might be getting Axon away from the bad apples in Bradenton that are clouding his perspective.
If he qualifies, I expect to see Axon in pre-season camp. If he makes it, don't be surprised if he redshirts in 2009 while he gets "acclimated" to college life.
At this point, unless he turns out to be the 21st century version of George Rogers, I would be stunned if Axon plays a single down in 2009.
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