29 July 2008
We're trying to get better. We don't like 6-6. We did qualify for a bowl, but there was another school, Alabama, at 6-6. They had a little bit more pull than South Carolina did. But that's OK. That's the way life is, and we understand it.It's a strange and rocky road to getting better in the wild, wild SEC East. Spurrier has done it before, but not at this late stage in his career with this sort of talent. Offense The questions here start with the quarterback position. It was assumed that redshirt freshman phenom Stephen Garcia would make a run at the starting position. That was before Garcia made fast friends with Columbia, SC law enforcement. He was asked to leave the athletic department and August 15 was his stated return date. That led to this incredibly ringing endorsement by the Old Ball Coach:
If we had to play tomorrow, Tommy Beecher would be our quarterback," Spurrier said. "Tommy Beecher actually has played a little bit better in the spring than Chris Smelley and our other quarterbacks..." Hopefully, someday we're going to have a quarterback here we can all really hang our hat on... Tommy Beecher is going to get that opportunity first to see if he can be the quarterback of our team."But, as a great mind once said... not so fast, my friend! Word comes now that Garcia may be back sooner than originally thought - possibly all of fall camp. That will certainly make things a bit more interesting. So Beecher and Garcia will compete for the starting position. Except, there's also Tuscaloosa native Chris Smelley in town, and he started six games last year. Smelley has more experience than any other quarterback on the squad. When it's all said and done, no one will really know who's starting until one of the guys breaks huddle against North Carolina State on Thursday, August 28. And Spurrier has in the past employed two quarterback systems with better QBs (guys like Jesse Palmer, Doug Johnson and Rex Grossman) than he has on campus now. It would be no surprise to see all three of these guys start games this season. The situation isn't exactly settled at running back, where senior Mike Davis is the probable candidate to replace Boyd. He'll need to watch his back, as highly touted freshman Eric Baker could break into the lineup quickly. Davis struggled on third and short opportunities last year, despite his size (5'9", 214), and if that trend continues, Baker will see more carries. Once you leave the offensive backfield, things look up for the Gamecocks. Kenny McKinley, who led the SEC and set the school record with 77 catches last season is back. McKinley is a preseason All SEC 1st teamer. Dion Lecord will start at the other receiver spot and should be good enough to keep teams from consistently doubling McKinley. In addition to those targets, whoever happens to be heaving the ball downfield will have one of the SEC's best tight end tandems: junior Jared Cook and sophomore Weslye Saunders anchor each side of the line. Despite being second and third tight end options last year (behind Andy Boyd), the pair combined for 42 catches for over 600 yards. The offensive line is one of the most consistent units for the Cocks. They return two full time starters and two part time starters. Experience is a real strength here as tackles Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorensen have 46 combined consecutive starts. Defense The defense last year was not good. Sure, partisans can point to South Carolina's pass defense - ranked first in the SEC and fourth nationally. But those numbers are inflated due to the abysmal run defense. Why risk throwing when you can run! Dead last in rushing defense in the SEC and 110th of 119 nationally (just worse than Bowling Green!), Spurrier decided to make a change. Spurrier stole Ellis Johnson away from Arkansas (who'd just stolen him away from Mississippi State). Johnson and his wife are South Carolina natives, and Johnson returns as defensive coordinator. Tide fans remember the 1997-2000 campaigns with Johnson as Alabama's DC. Johnson inherits a talented group that starts right up front. He is so confident in his defensive line that Johnson has moved his best returning end, Eric Norwood, to linebacker. To be fair, Jordin Lindsey returns after missing all of 2007 for academic reasons; he closed the 2006 campaign as the MVP of the Liberty Bowl. He's joined on the line by DT Ladi Aijboye who, at 6'1", 300 was All SEC Freshman last year. Other tackles include Nathan Pepper, who was sidelined early last season with a knee injury, and Marque Hall, who has been a step slower since his 2006 knee injury. With Norwood moving to linebacker, that unit seems in good shape. Especially when you consider 270 pound MLB Jasper Brinkley (a first team All SEC performer) is back and ostensibly healthy - after his season ending knee injury last year (beginning to see a trend?). The secondary is in good shape with 2nd Team All SEC selection Captain Munnerlyn at one corner and returning starter Carlos Thomas at the other corner. Naturally, Munnerlyn is returning from offseason foot surgery. Hard hitting strong safety Emanuel Cook returns to after an excellent 2007. Ryan Succop is expected to be the placekicker once more, but new special teams coach Ray Rychleski (formerly with Maryland) hopes to move sophomore Spencer Lanning into the punter role so Succop can concentrate on his kicking duties. Ironically, the coaches selected Succop as the 2nd Team All SEC punter. Biggest Games South Carolina will likely be 4-1 (assuming a loss to Georgia) when they head to Oxford for their first road test of the season. The following week, the Cocks have a must-win trip to Kentucky. Wins against Ole Miss and Kentucky line up a very respectable season and probably catapults them towards third in the division. Losses mean competing with Vanderbilt for last. Bottom Line South Carolina must be markedly better against the run to have any shot of being competitive in the East. A solution at quarterback is necessary to keep out of the cellar. It would require nothing short of a Spurrier miracle for all the pieces to fall into place to compete for the division title, and third is probably the best anyone outside of Florida or Georgia can hope for. Third in the East is not out of the question for this team. But too many balls have to bounce in the Cocks' direction for that to realistically happen. Prediction: 6-6 (3-5) December in Legion Field - it'll be just like 1992 for Spurrier. Except instead of the SEC title game, it's the SEC's new alliance with the PapaJohns.com Bowl.
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