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March 15, 2011
Gamecocks prepare for division title defense
It took a while -- almost 42 years -- but South Carolina again enters spring practice coming off a championship season.
The Gamecocks are the defending SEC East champs; it was their first title of any kind since wining the ACC crown in 1969.
While the Gamecocks surely were helped by Florida, Georgia and Tennessee being down in 2010, the title wasn't a fluke. The Gamecocks should be in the thick of the division race again and likely will head into the season as the favorite to repeat.
WR Alshon Jeffery and TB Marcus Lattimore give coach Steve Spurrier two extremely talented toys with which to concoct some cool "ball plays." The defense has a chance to be quite good if the linebackers come through. Heck, even if the linebackers struggle, the presence of defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson ensures that the Gamecocks at least will be solid on that side of the ball.
Here's a look at where South Carolina stands as it heads into spring drills.
Positions of strength
Junior WR Alshon Jeffery should be one of the best in the nation at his position. He is big, fast and sure-handed. The offensive backfield looks good. TB Marcus Lattimore had a big-time freshman season and heads a deep stable of tailbacks. QB Stephen Garcia is heading into his third season as the starter; it's evident he's never going to be a star, but he is solid enough to lead a team to a division title, as he proved last season. Coach Steve Spurrier is high on sophomore QB Connor Shaw, and it's expected that Shaw will get a lot of reps this spring and push Garcia all season. The defensive line lost two starters, but the Gamecocks still look good there. T Travian Robertson and Es Melvin Ingram and Devin Taylor have All-SEC potential. The secondary was shaky last season, but the talent is there for a good unit. Junior CB Stephon Gilmore has all the tools; he just needs some consistency. All four projected starters are upperclassmen, and the top candidate at nickelback is a senior.
Help is needed
While Jeffery is a stud, the Gamecocks need some folks to step up and prove they can be effective No. 2 and 3 receivers. South Carolina must be able to make opponents pay for doubling Jeffery. The offensive line is searching for two new starters, and perhaps the second season of line coach Shawn Elliott's tenure will lead to more consistent play from the linemen. While the defensive line and secondary look good, the linebackers are a question. South Carolina had injury woes there last season, and if that happens again, the Gamecocks are in dire straits. We mentioned the secondary in the section above, but if that group doesn't make strides this season, the unit will belong in this section when the season starts. Spencer Lanning handled the kicking and punting duties last season, but he is gone; senior Jay Wooten could handle both roles this season, and his spring performance could be an indicator as to whether he can get the job done.
3 guys to watch
DT Aldrick Fordham: Robertson is set at one tackle spot, but who will line up next to him? Fordham, a junior who has made 14 career tackles, likely gets first dibs. Coaches have said Robertson probably will sit out the spring scrimmages, meaning a lot of snaps are going to be available to a lot of young tackles. Fordham needs to show he has what it takes this spring or risk being bypassed on the depth chart.
OT Cody Gibson: Gibson is a redshirt freshman who is listed as the starter at right tackle going into spring practice. He is 6 feet 6 and 282 pounds, meaning he could stand to add more weight. His main competitor figures to be junior college transfer Kaleb Broome, who enrolled in January. Neither has played a down of major college football; can either get the job done?
LB Rodney Paulk: He is a sixth-year senior trying to regain his sophomore form. Paulk started as a true freshman in 2006, then had a solid sophomore campaign in '07 with 64 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. But since then, injuries have taken over. A knee injury meant limited time in four games in 2008, and he received a medical redshirt. In 2009, he blew out his knee in the season-opener and received another medical redshirt. He was healthy but not really 100 percent last season, finishing with 32 tackles. Coaches are hoping he can start at middle linebacker in his final go-round. Considering that Shaq Wilson, the Gamecocks' best linebacker, is coming back from a hamstring injury that limited him to one game last season, Paulk is under pressure to perform this spring.
The pressure is on
WR Jason Barnes: Jeffery is a given to be the go-to receiver, and Barnes, a senior, will be given every opportunity this spring to show he can be an effective complementary piece. Barnes has great size (6-4/213), and coaches want him to win the job as the slot receiver, where he could overpower nickelbacks and outrun linebackers. He looked like a future star in 2008, when, as a redshirt freshman, he started nine games and had 27 receptions and two TDs. But he hasn't caught another TD pass since and has 32 receptions combined in the past two seasons. If he struggles this spring, don't expect him to play a big role this fall.
There have been some recent springs where the Gamecocks had a long checklist of things to get done. This isn't one of them. They had some problems last season in the secondary, along the offensive line and at linebacker, and still won the SEC East. Still, Spurrier and his staff would rest easy this summer if they can get some questions answered this spring. Offensively, the most pressing need is finding some depth at wide receiver. If that happens, Spurrier can play golf with a clear conscience this summer. Defensively, if Paulk and Wilson are healthy and can show they'll be productive, coordinator Ellis Johnson will be smiling all summer. And if Spurrier and Johnson are happy, Gamecocks fans should be happy, too.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.