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August 13, 2010
With 10 practices of fall camp in the books, South Carolina continues the revolving carousel of questions. Some have been answered, some have been created and some remain unsolved, but there have been some pleasant surprises.
A look at some of the biggest storylines of camp thus far:
GO D.J., GO D.J.: D.J. Swearinger has continued his stellar work from the spring, pushing projected starter Akeem Auguste for the starting free safety spot. A cornerback as a freshman to avoid a redshirt, Swearinger has returned to his natural spot and is hoping to continue his rise.
As a corner, Swearinger looked painfully like what he was -- a freshman -- at times but also delivered some bone-jarring hits. Halfway through the 2009 season, defensive head Ellis Johnson praised the rookie for his quick-learning capacity and during the spring, Swearinger kept improving.
With an award for most improved defensive back in tow, Swearinger has been steady and sometimes spectacular in fall camp. While the Gamecocks shifted gears over the offseason, moving Chris Culliver to corner and Auguste back to free, Swearinger kept driving his usual route. Auguste may have another year's worth of experience, but Swearinger's workmanlike mentality is again raising eyebrows.
SLOT FOR A SLOT: With the departure of Moe Brown, USC needs somebody to provide a complement to its plethora of tall, rangy receivers. One name has leaped to the top -- freshman Ace Sanders.
A quick addition to some of the first-team offensive lineups, Sanders has already displayed his sizzling speed and ability to get open. Small enough to duck under his defenders and a player who always seems to know exactly which spot to go to for a pass, the only problem Sanders had in the first 10 practices was getting his quarterbacks to catch up to him.
"Most of the time, I was throwing with Connor (Shaw), because I was with the B group," Sanders said. "He never really had a chance to adjust to my speed. He knows now, though. Connor's good, (Stephen) Garcia's an excellent player. I've got faith in both of them."
Sanders is also bidding for the starting job at holder, after the departure of Stephen Flint opened that door. A holder throughout his high-school career, Sanders receiving the snap can add a new dimension to the Gamecocks' kicking game should he win the job.
Another name that has popped up is Nick Jones. Like Sanders, Jones is a smaller receiver who can run and has already shown off his collegiate abilities. Playing for college feeder Byrnes High School, Jones learned how to make a sharp cut, which caught Steve Spurrier's eye and drew praise.
BACKUP FOR THE BACKUP: While Shaw has earned and held the No. 2 quarterback spot throughout the spring and early fall, two players are battling for the third spot -- Andrew Clifford and Seth Strickland.
Three QB departures over the last year cleared up the depth chart and each is taking advantage. Clifford has shown great ability on the short routes and unleashed a 60-yard touchdown toss to Sanders during a short scrimmage on Wednesday. An extremely strong arm may give him a push toward the spot, and perhaps a battle with Shaw for No. 2.
"Everybody's going to get their chance around here," Clifford said. "If I keep working hard, I'll get a good chance, and if I don't blow it, I'll be ready to play."
Strickland stood out in the Gamecocks' first scrimmage after he seemed poised and alert while running the show. Spurrier credited the walk-on's headiness, saying so much of the game was mental nowadays; Strickland was the beneficiary of more repetitions in practice as a result.
"I'm real grateful he gave me an opportunity to be on the field here," Strickland said. "His offense, just to learn it all, it's just wonderful."
RUNNING UP: The Gamecocks' deep stock of tailbacks has gotten an increased chance to show what each can do, due to Kenny Miles missing most of camp with a hamstring injury and Brian Maddox absent for a couple of days with a groin pull. Marcus Lattimore and Jarvis Giles have taken advantage.
Giles diligently worked on his foibles over the offseason, gaining more muscle and learning to always keep his feet pointed downfield. Shifty and speedy, Giles burst onto the scene last year before a predilection toward running out of trouble and into negative yardage, trying to make something from nothing, got him in the doghouse.
During the Gamecocks' first scrimmage, Giles was the team's top rusher and scored the only touchdown on a 34-yard sprint. He has placed his name squarely in the top of the rotation and Lattimore is close behind.
The decorated prospect has done well, although he fumbled twice in a recent team drill. His skill as an every-down back is coming along while his ability to catch the ball from the backfield is already clearly in place. He earned the high-school kudos for a reason and just has to display it on the national stage.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: While Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson are still considered starters and USC's best options at the two-man linebacker corps, their spotty showings during fall camp has allowed others to show off. Josh Dickerson has stepped to the front.
"He's made me better and I've made him better," Dickerson said of defensive head Ellis Johnson. "Only coach Johnson can say who's going to be on top at the end. I'm pleased with the way I've been playing, but I know I can do a little more to make myself better."
Wilson has been slowed by a nagging hamstring injury, something he says is no problem but something the medical staff has not cleared him from so he can practice. Paulk, after his last two seasons ended prematurely due to knee injuries, is practicing but has looked rusty while getting back to form.
With Qua Gilchrist also battling a hamstring problem, Dickerson, Tony Straughter and Quin Smith have gotten their chances. Dickerson has been the one who has grabbed the spotlight.
BLACK CAT-TED: The careers of Dion LeCorn and Reginald Bowens took more downswings during fall camp. Each of the oft-injured players have again gotten hurt.
LeCorn, a possibility at slot receiver, sprained the AC joint in his left shoulder and has his arm in a cast. He said he has been told he'll be fine by the Sept. 2 season-opener, but might not be able to practice until the week of the game. The fourth major medical mishap for LeCorn since the spring of 2009, the potential for him re-claiming what was a solid receiver's role as a freshman is diminishing.
Bowens, who Johnson has called the most physically gifted linebacker on the team, sprained his right knee and his return to practice is unknown. Listed as a defensive end but able to move to linebacker if need be, Bowens sprained his left knee last year and sat out all of 2008 after shoulder surgery.
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