Blue Ribbon Preview: South Carolina
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When touted receiver Alshon Jeffery turned down Tennessee during the process of deciding to sign with South Carolina in February 2009, then-Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin reportedly suggested such a move was the first step toward "pumping gas."
But successive classes behind Jeffery have featured former No. 10 overall prospect Marcus Lattimore and incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney, a consensus No. 1 overall recruit, and suddenly Steve Spurrier's gas-pumping apprenticeship program is running on heavy fuel.
The Gamecocks were in the chase in 2010 until getting lapped by Auburn in the SEC Championship, and if Clowney's instant impact at defensive end remotely resembles those of Jeffery and Lattimore at receiver and running back, respectively, Spurrier could lead his third program to a checkered flag.
Despite the dynamic debuts of Jeffery and Lattimore, Clowney is generating even more hype -- even from straight shooters such as Spurrier and veteran defensive guru Ellis Johnson.
"Signing players like Jadeveon ups our expectations," Spurrier said at a Valentine's Day signing press conference. "We want to rise around here and achieve the SEC Championship in years to come. I think it's the first time South Carolina has signed the No. 1 recruit."
Johnson, like Spurrier, is coaching in his fifth decade. He hasn't seen the Friday night force that Clowney fueled since his first decade.
"My third year in coaching and first year as a head coach in high school I coached against William [Refrigerator] Perry," Johnson said. "And he [Clowney] is the most dominant destructive athlete I've seen in this state since William. Different type [of player], and he's his own man. I mean they can compare him to [Julius] Peppers and all those guys. He may never accomplish anything close to what Peppers has done. He may surpass it. He may whatever.
"But just as a physical specimen, I've never seen a kid like him on the high school level. And that doesn't mean I've seen them all, but I've been coaching 35 years. I've never seen one like him."
Spurrier, who's entering his seventh season in Columbia, led the Gamecocks to their first SEC Championship appearance, and the No. 22 final ranking was the first Top 25 finish since 2001. South Carolina has an ideal schedule to build on 2010.
The Gamecocks don't have to play LSU or Alabama, the nonconference schedule other than Clemson is The Citadel, Navy and East Carolina.
Head Coach: Steve Spurrier (Florida '66)
Record at school: 44-33 (6 years)
Career record: 186-73-2 (21 years)
• Ellis Johnson (The Citadel '75) Assistant Head Coach Defense/Linebackers
• Lorenzo Ward (Alabama '91) Defensive Coordinator
• John Butler (Catholic University '95) Special Teams Coordinator
• Shawn Elliott (Appalachian State '96) Running Game Coordinator/Offensive Line
• Jay Graham (Tennessee '04) Running Backs/Assistant Special Teams Coordinator
• Jeep Hunter (Catawba '91) Safeties
• Brad Lawing (Lenoir-Rhyne '79) Defensive Line
• G.A. Mangus (Florida '92) Quarterbacks/Passing Game Coordinator
• Steve Spurrier, Jr. (Duke '94) Wide Receivers/Recruiting Coordinator
You might say the fact that fifth-year senior Stephen Garcia (6-2, 230) survived his fifth suspension in the offseason makes him the quintessential piece to South Carolina's title hopes.
Garcia missed a couple of early throws that could've gone for big plays in the SEC Championship against Auburn and put the ball on the ground with a couple of ill-advised decisions to help Auburn rally for a regular-season victory on The Plains. But 2011 revealed continued improvement in his productive, albeit frustrating, career.
Garcia was 17-of-20 for 201 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-21 win against top-ranked Alabama. He finished the season 224-of-349 (64.2 percent) for 3,059 yards and 20 TDs. Garcia also rushed for six touchdowns.
Garcia is third all-time among Gamecocks in passing yards (6,753) and passing TDs (43). But unless he can play a triple bogey-free round in his swan song, he'll best be remembered for backbreaking turnovers, particularly fumbles like the back-to-backs he gave to Auburn in the fourth quarter of the regular-season loss.
"Stephen played better than he's played in the past," Spurrier said. "He still has a few 'Stephen Garcia' plays. We just can't get rid of those. It's unfortunate that here and there a few bad plays occur. Anyway, he played pretty well most of the year."
Garcia's spring suspension meant more work for sophomore Connor Shaw (6-1, 202), the backup thrown into such fires as when Garcia was yanked in the tight game at Auburn. Shaw made some quality throws and is fairly mobile. He's expected to challenge Garcia, especially with the oft-impatient Spurrier. Shaw completed 69.7 percent of his passes (23-of-33) for 223 yards, and rushed for 165 yards on 32 carries.
"Connor Shaw did some good things this spring, got a lot of activity with Stephen Garcia out two of the four weeks," Spurrier said. "So we'll see how the quarterback situation plays out."
Given Garcia's volatile off-the-field situation, Spurrier especially emphasized the productive summer Shaw should strive for -- emphasis that included watching tape and making 100 throws a day, five days a week.
"Well certainly if Stephen doesn't make it back we have complete confidence Connor Shaw can run this offense and be a very good quarterback," Spurrier said. "We think he just needs a lot of playing time, a lot of experience, just a lot of snaps. And hopefully he'll do that this summer. I've really encouraged him. We've given him a plan."
Sophomore Marcus Lattimore (6-0, 230) had a freshman season worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Herschel Walker. Lattimore parlayed a dazzling mixture of balance, burst and strength into 1,197 rushing yards -- the most ever by a Gamecock not named George Rogers -- and 17 touchdowns on 249 carries. He ran 40 times for 212 yards and three TDs in Spurrier's first win at Florida while personally outgaining (243-226) and outscoring (18-14) the Gators. Lattimore also caught 29 passes for 412 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensive chief Johnson was impressed with new offensive line coach Shawn Elliott in 2010, but the arrival of South Carolina's long-lost running game had more to do with Lattimore.
"Lattimore is the big difference," Johnson said. "He didn't look like a freshman. I mean his second ballgame was against Georgia, and I don't know what he ran for, but it was unbelievable. I think he had 126 missed or broken tackles in the game. And that was against a pretty dang good football team.
"I just think he's a very unusual kid. He's not a blazer; he's not a bulldozer like Herschel. But he has an unbelievable change of speed. He's got three or four gears. His balance is unbelievable. His running base is perfect. He's got low pads. He can make cuts while his pads are low. I mean we'll get guys completely missed and in the backfield, and they can't tackle him. They'll miss him and he'll squirt up in there for a four-yard gain."
A pair of juniors, Kenny Miles (5-10, 184) and Eric Baker (5-11, 204), will back up Lattimore. Miles has rushed for more than 100 yards in three games during eight career starts. He contributed 70 yards on 10 carries while spelling an injured Lattimore against Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Baker entered the 2009 spring camp as the starter at tailback but has been hampered by injuries the last two seasons.
As is the case with Lattimore, the Gamecocks have a consensus All-America candidate in junior Alshon Jeffery (6-4, 233). The reigning Biletnikoff finalist is fourth all-time at South Carolina in receiving yards (2,280) and eighth in receptions (134) after setting single-season records in catches (88) and receiving yards (1,517). He's already tied Sidney Rice's school record for 100-yard receiving games (11), and currently has caught a pass in 22 straight games.
Jeffery's height and hands make him the ideal jump-ball target, but as he displayed by dashing out of a simple curl pattern in the middle of a soft Tennessee zone for a crucial 70-yard TD catch, his deceptive speed is a weapon, too.
"He doesn't look like he's fast," Spurrier said, "but no one seems to catch him from behind."
Despite losing Tori Gurley, Garcia still has two more tall targets in junior D.L. Moore (6-4, 212) and senior Jason Barnes (6-4, 213). Barnes has 60 career catches for 730 yards. Two of Moore's 17 catches in 2010 went for touchdowns.
Sophomore Ace Sanders (5-7, 173) also scored twice during his true freshman season. Sanders has good hands and exceptional speed and quickness. He had 25 receptions for 316 yards last season. Sanders also rushed five times for 56 yards and threw a three-yard TD pass to Garcia.
Redshirt sophomores DeAngelo Smith (6-0, 191) and Lamar Scruggs (6-3, 226) are competing to spell Jeffery. Scruggs had three catches for 53 yards in 2010. Junior Bryce Sherman (5-4, 157), a former sprinter in track, is being moved from tailback to wideout.
South Carolina is largely unproven at tight end. Junior Justice Cunningham (6-3, 262), known primarily for blocking, made seven catches for 92 yards last season. Junior Mike Triglia (6-4, 240) missed spring camp with a knee injury suffered before the bowl game. One of Triglia's two receptions in 2010 was a nine-yard catch in the SEC Championship.
Reviews were good during the first year under new position coach Elliott, who returns three starters for his second season. Junior center T.J. Johnson (6-4, 314) is a two-year starter. Senior Rokevious Watkins (6-4, 334) is a returning starter at right guard who made the move to right tackle during spring camp. Sixth-year senior Terrence Campbell (6-3, 295), who has 13 career starts, is moving from left to right guard. Senior Kyle Nunn (6-5, 296) started nine games at left tackle in 2010. Redshirt freshman A.J. Cann (6-3, 305) exited spring drills atop the depth chart at left guard.
Redshirt freshman Cody Gibson (6-6, 282) pleased Elliott with his work at right tackle during the spring.
"I think Rokevious and Cody Gibson at the right tackle position has really helped us see a different scenario, so to speak," Elliott said. "If, let's say, A.J. doesn't work out inside, I think Rokevious could move in there and Cody's a strong possibility to come in there and play at a high level [at right tackle]. So I'm really pleased with that. It gives us a little bit more depth inside."
Elliott's unit is thin -- only about eight deep entering fall camp -- and that's not eight proven high-level players. Junior Kaleb Broome (6-5, 319) is listed as the backup at right guard. Junior Kenny Davis (6-3, 310) is backing up Cann at left guard and undersized sophomore Coastal Carolina transfer Travis Ford (6-2, 265) is the No. 2 man at center, where freshmen arriving during the fall could get a look.
Despite losing NFL draft pick Cliff Matthews, South Carolina returns two proven defensive ends in junior Devin Taylor (6-7, 248) and senior Melvin Ingram (6-2, 271). Taylor made the All-SEC first team in 2010, tallying 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Ingram led the team with nine sacks, third in the SEC. And sophomore Chaz Sutton (6-4, 245) and senior Byron McKnight (6-5, 242) haven't disappointed.
Still, a true freshman is expected to be starting at defensive end before long. That's because Jadeveon Clowney (6-6, 248), the consensus No. 1 overall prospect nationally, is a rare package of size, strength, speed and quickness. The Rock Hill, S.C., product has been compared to the likes of Julius Peppers.
"We're really in good shape at end," Johnson said. "We've got two good starters in Taylor and Ingram who've played a lot of SEC football, and we've got two backups who've been around here. McKnight's been around here three years and been sort of a blue-collar guy, and Chaz Sutton's been here two years. And that all being said, I just think the kid's gonna come in here and find a spot."
Johnson, generally not one to spew superlatives, has a hard time qualifying praise when it comes to Clowney.
"He plays a little under 250, probably, but he's so dadgum fast," Johnson said. "He ran on their 4x100 relay in track this year, and they finished third in the state mainly because of him. He's been hyped up so much, being rated the No. 1 player in America. I don't know if anybody that ever gets that put on top of them ever lives up to the hype, because the hype's out of whack. But he's a great player and I know he'll bring something to the table. How soon, I don't know."
Schemes aren't expected to slow down Clowney.
"We're gonna look at various things," Johnson said. "He's a pretty sharp kid; he's smart, and he's got great athleticism. So I think if we want to do some versatile things with him, that's certainly possible. We don't want to overload his circuits there too early."
The defensive line's interior worries Johnson. Senior Travian Robertson (6-4, 298), the Gamecocks' strongest player, is the only proven asset. Junior Aldrick Fordham (6-4, 273) and freshman Kelcy Quarles (6-3, 271) are vying for Ladi Ajiboye's vacancy beside Robertson. Quarles initially signed in 2010 as a Parade All-American, but enrolled in January after attending prep school. Junior Byron Jerideau (6-0, 315) is in better shape than he was during his first season out of junior college in 2010.
"We've got some concerns in the interior," Johnson said. "We've got Travian Robertson back, who's a proven player. But the rest of the guys -- Jerideau and Fordham and Quarles and two or three of these signees -- somebody's gonna have to mix it up and fill up the interior. That's what I'm more worried about.
"Kelcy Quarles, we put him at tackle in the spring because that's where we're a little more thin on the depth chart, and he struggled the first couple of weeks. But as the spring wore on I thought he had about four or five really good days there toward the end. And I would have to say that he and Jerideau are the two guys who will probably fight it out for the starting job at that tackle spot."
South Carolina had trouble getting to the quarterback with a four-man rush in 2010. Although Johnson said that was primarily because of the lack of push inside, Clowney should immediately amplify pass pressure.
"We had to pressure sometimes and drop eight sometimes to do something unusual on third and medium, and we've got to get away from that," Johnson said. "And I think with Clowney and Melvin and Devin and some of those guys, we've got a chance now. If you can't get home on the quarterback efficiently with four people, well, sooner or later you're gonna pay for it. I hope we're gonna be better this year."
Starters Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter must be replaced, but each entered spring camp in 2010 as backups. The Gamecocks could be better at linebacker -- assuming, of course, they stay healthy. Sixth-year senior Rodney Paulk (6-0, 229) missed 2009 after tearing an ACL in the opener and junior Shaq Wilson (5-11, 233) missed all but one game in 2010 thanks to a hamstring injury suffered during the final August practice.
Wilson was the team leader in tackles in 2009. Paulk made 64 stops as a sophomore way back in 2007 before enduring back-to-back medical red-shirt seasons because of knee injuries. He made 32 tackles during his return in 2010.
"Rodney was limited last year with a big knee brace and Shaq missed last year," Johnson said. "I think both of them have a shot to come in and be our starters. I'm hoping they will. They bring a lot more experience and leadership in there than the other kids. I've got some good young ones that I think are at least as good athletes as they are, but they don't have the experience level and they don't have the knowledge of our defense. I think Shaq and Rodney Paulk both have a chance to have really solid seasons."
Senior Antonio Allen (6-2, 208) is a returning starter at the spur linebacker position and was second on the team with 70 tackles despite missing two games with a hamstring injury. Junior Devonte Holloman (6-2, 226), who made 69 tackles and two interceptions while playing in all 14 games (10 starts) at strong safety in 2010, had an encouraging spring after moving to the spur slot.
"Antonio's had a good run and coming back with a lot of experience," Johnson said. "Now, we've moved Holloman up there to the same position. That's something that could change things, because if those two guys continue to play well we're not gonna have one of them sitting on the bench for 30 plays a game while somebody at another position is out there.
"DeVonte is really not a deep safety. He's an outside 'backer-strong safety type of guy. Unselfishly, he's played back there two years for us. He wanted to move and we wanted to move him, but right now we've got two really good football players lined up at one spot."
Junior Demario Jeffery (6-3, 230) is making the transition inside from the spur slot. Jeffery started three games last season.
Juniors Reginald Bowens (6-2, 246) and Quin Smith (6-0, 230) are in the mix. Smith made 49 tackles last season, including seven against Auburn in the SEC Championship, and forced a fumble from Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd. Injuries have slowed the growth of the talented Bowens.
Junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore (6-1, 194) is of the same exceptional ilk as Jeffrey, Lattimore and Clowney. In fact, Gilmore and Jeffrey are in Mel Kiper's initial 2012 top 25 projected NFL draft picks. Gilmore, a former prep teammate of Clowney on a state championship team, was voted first-team all-conference by the SEC coaches in 2010 after making a team-high 79 tackles.
"When you play corner you're not gonna get all the hoopla that you get playing wideout or running back," Johnson said, "but he's every bit the type of player that those guys are. He's started more games than they have, and probably made more of an impact for our ballclub over the last two seasons."
A cover corner that can play physically, Gilmore had three sacks, returned a fumble inside the South Carolina 5-yard line 13 yards against Georgia and returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown against Furman.
Akeem Auguste (5-10, 183) is returning to the field cornerback slot, where he exited spring camp atop the depth chart ahead of fellow senior C.C. Whitlock (5-10, 181). Auguste started 10 games at free safety last year and made 58 tackles after starting nine games at cornerback in 2009. Whitlock has 10 career starts.
Johnson feels good about the cornerbacks, and he says junior D.J. Swearinger (5-11, 206) is capable at free safety.
"But moving Akeem outside and moving Holloman up in the box, and frankly, we're back where we started from at safety," Johnson said. "We've got D.J. Swearinger back, who's a good, experienced player. But we've just got to kind of throw it up and see who's gonna win that other safety position."
Sophomore Jimmy Legree (5-11, 180) wrapped up spring camp in encouraging fashion, as did safety Brison Williams (5-10, 206), who enrolled in January out of prep school.
"I think they'll make their presence felt and get into the two-deep," Johnson said. "Jimmy had four or five good days there at the end at free safety."
Ace Sanders and Stephon Gilmore each returned nine punts in 2010, although neither generated much production, Gilmore's 5.2-yard average was nearly triple that of Sanders.
Sanders is No. 2 on the post-spring depth chart at kick returner beneath Swearinger, who returned four kicks for 87 yards in 2010. Bryce Sherman returned 35 kicks last season, but isn't among the top three on the depth chart entering fall camp.
A pair of juniors, Walker Inabinet (5-9, 198) and Seth Strickland (6-2, 193), are expected to be the long snapper and holder, respectively.
Senior Jay Wooten (6-3, 203), a former North Carolina Tar Heel, took over the kickoff duties part way through last season and could succeed the departed Spencer Lanning at place-kicker this season.
The other contending kicker is senior Joey Scribner-Howard (6-1, 212), who began 2010 doing the kickoff duties.
Redshirt freshman Patrick Fish (5-11, 190) and Joey Scribner-Howard are the primary options to replace Lanning. Fish is a kicker who had the luxury of entering South Carolina on scholarship.
South Carolina's composite class ranking of numerous pundits was near the bottom of the Top 25, but Clowney could help get the Gamecocks over the hump right away. Lead recruiter Ellis Johnson doesn't recall a signing creating nearly as much excitement.
"What's amazing is we went to the SEC championship game, beat a lot of good football teams and have got a bunch of good players coming back, and when I talk to people like you [Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook] and other preseason magazines and Tony Barnhart and all these other people, Clowney is either the first, second or third guy they ask about," Johnson said. "And I say 'Hey, the guy ain't even in school yet, much less on the field.' "
Clowney joined Jeffrey and Lattimore as huge in-state signings in recent years, and now Spurrier has one from the low country in Brandon Shell (6-6, 316). A great nephew of former Oakland Raiders All-Pro Art Shell, Brandon, a Goose Creek product, could end up starting at left offensive tackle as a true freshman.
Hillsdale, N.J., product Tanner McEvoy (6-6, 207) is an intriguing signee. McEvoy has 4.5 speed and played receiver until moving to quarterback his senior season. But Spurrier likes his combination of height, athleticism and arm.
Cornerback Martay Mattox (6-1, 186) and tight ends Jerell Adams (6-5, 217), Rory Anderson (6-5, 201) and Drew Owens (6-4, 211) could all be on the field in some role before long.
Defensive tackle Phillip Dukes (6-2, 296) plays the right position for a long look early.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
With a make-history-at-home mantra, Spurrier and company have mined a talented state for many of its top gems in recent years. South Carolina looks like the most dynamic, if not the deepest, team in the SEC East.
Winning early with iffy safeties against an impressive, mobile quarterback (Aaron Murray) at Georgia won't be easy, but Jeffery, Lattimore, Gilmore and most likely Clowney should help get South Carolina back to Atlanta with either Garcia or Shaw at the controls.
"We believe the opportunity is there," Spurrier said, "for us to become a top-of-the-SEC type team."
South Carolina fans are all but giddy about the prospects of the upcoming season. Indeed, the Gamecocks have cracked the Top 10 in some preseason rankings. Johnson believes the energy has been a positive.
"As long as they channel it into effort toward conditioning and preparing for the season, I don't have any problems with players being optimistic, or confident, or whatever," Johnson said. "But talking about us playing for the championship again and winning it and going to the national championship -- all that's a bunch of bull. This is a team that lost to Kentucky, struggled with Vanderbilt, hasn't won a bowl game but one time in five years and got plastered in the other postseason games. We can't say that we've arrived yet. But we've taken a step. And I think our players are feeding off of it. As long as they're feeding off of it and not trying to live off of it, we'll be fine."
The Gamecocks ended up gassed trying to stop Auburn's Cam Newton in the SEC Championship in 2010. But South Carolina should be pumped about its chances of another SEC title drive when considering the high octane it's running on in a watered-down SEC East.
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