Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of a 14-part look at spring practices throughout the SEC that the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network are bringing over a three week period.
COLUMBIA - Even given Steve Spurrier's reputation for being an offensive coach, his first teams at South Carolina were not known for working the scoreboard, never hitting the 30 points-per-game average during his first five seasons patrolling the sidelines. Spurred by a combination of several factors, the Gamecock offense has improved to average 30 points per game or better for the past three seasons. The highest mark under Spurrier came last season, during the 2012 11-win campaign in which USC averaged 31.5 points per contest.
Among the changes made over the course of the past three seasons: a new offensive line coach in Shawn Elliott who introduced zone read elements brought over from Appalachian State, more input from G.A. Mangus (a quarterbacks coach who himself is a former head coach and offensive coordinator) as well as Steve Spurrier Jr., a record-setting running back in Marcus Lattimore, and better talent across the board. How much credit each of those deserves up for discussion, but the fact remains that South Carolina's production on offense has been better lately, and there is reason to think that the 2013 version of the Gamecock offense could be the best ever under Spurrier in Columbia.
A big reason for that? For the first time ever, the coaching staff has not one, but two quarterbacks that can be counted on to get the job done in big games in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. The latter came on in relief for Shaw during the Clemson and Michigan games to close out the season, winning both and tossing the game-winning touchdown pass as the final seconds ticked away in the Outback Bowl. Shaw sat out the spring with a surgically repaired foot, allowing Thompson to get some more valuable reps.
"Connor was out there every day. He's ready to go," Spurrier said at the conclusion of the spring. "He'll work extremely hard this summer to get ready to play, just like Dylan will. They'll be ready. He and Connor give us our two best since I've been here, that's for sure."
Although Spurrier's teams have been better offensively as of late, the bread and butter of his Gamecock teams has been the defense. Last season, first-year defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward helped lead the squad to a top-15 national finish in scoring defense (good for fourth in the SEC). That side of the ball is where the majority of the questions reside, particularly at linebacker where the youth is glaring.
"Our biggest question mark going into the spring was the linebackers," Ward said after the annual Garnet and Black Game. "I feel like we made some progress there, but we still have a ways to go. But I feel we can get there."
The defense will be aided by the presence of one of the (if not the best) defensive players in the country in Jadeveon Clowney, plus other solid performers on the defensive line and a secondary that has show the ability to produce in the past. Still, eyes will be on this group during the fall and early part of the season to see if there is any drop-off from last year's unit.
Five questions about the Gamecocks
Biggest thing you learned about South Carolina this spring.
The offense should be able to replace key losses, and could be the best yet under Spurrier if this team can stay healthy up front. USC was able to make up for the loss of Alshon Jeffery at receiver after the 2011 season, and made do without Marcus Lattimore in the backfield for portions of the past two seasons. Now, USC is tasked with no Lattimore at all, plus the loss of productive receiver Ace Sanders, one of the best punt returners in the country. However, several younger offensive linemen had very good offseason workout programs and looked to have taken a step forward during spring ball. There are still plenty of playmaker on offense like Bruce Ellington and the tight end tandem of Busta Anderson and Jerell Adams. As mentioned previously, USC feels good about two different quarterbacks and the running back position also has some talent.
Questions South Carolina received answers to this spring.
Spring practices are often a time when injured players are healing, starters are resting in order to give younger players valuable learning reps, and the coaching staff is hoping to come away with no new injuries heading into the summer. In that regard it was a success for this Gamecocks team.
USC certainly found out that there are some talented pass-catchers on the roster. Shaq Roland and Shamier Jeffery are both young receivers that look poised to add more production than each did last season. Nick Jones showed a knack for making some big plays last year and a slimmed-down version of him looked good enough to lock down a starting job going into the fall. The quarterback position also looks in the best shape it has in some time; aside from Shaw and Thompson redshirt freshman Brendan Nosovitch had his best performance of the spring during the Garnet and Black Game and true freshman Connor Mitch made the most of his early enrollment by turning in a solid first practice campaign.
The offensive line looks poised to be improved and a big factor for that is quite simply more experience gained from last season, one in which the unit was up and down. Left guard A.J. Cann is one of the team leaders and could be an All-SEC candidate in his junior campaign.
It was also apparent that although questions remain, the group of linebackers on the team has athletic ability. Kelvin Rainey may have set some sort of mark for interceptions by a Gamecock linebacker during spring ball, and many others showed flashes Exiting the spring, not many doubt that this group has the ability to play in the SEC from a physical standpoint, but more mental reps and gaining on-field experience will be key.
Questions still lingering for South Carolina after spring.
The most glaring questions remain in a couple areas: overall depth as well as linebacker. Along the offensive line, USC looks to be improved primarily due to experience, but there is a noticeable lack of it behind the starting five. Only one, backup right guard Will Sport, has played a single snap in a game. The Gamecocks' two backup cornerbacks during the spring were both walk-ons due to JUCO transfer Ronnie Martin missing most practices with a hamstring injury, Ahmad Christian out on the baseball diamond, and redshirt freshman Rico McWilliams still sidelined rehabbing last year's knee injury. Finding some depth at those spots will be key once preseason camp opens later this year.
As mentioned previously, the linebacker corps is extremely young. The projected starter at MIKE, Kaiwan Lewis, played mainly special teams and some late-game snaps at linebacker last season. db]Cedrick Cooper[/db], though to have the inside track on the WILL spot, tore his ACL during bowl practice and will not be back until fall practice at the earliest. T.J. Holloman was nicknamed "The Doctor" by D.J. Swearinger last year for his smarts on the field, but he has never played a snap. Ditto for Marcquis Roberts and Rainey. Jordan Diggs played just a bit last season before receiving a medical redshirt, and Sharrod Golightly is the veteran of the group at SPUR despite never being a full-time starter himself. The players look good on the hoof and they can move around, but it's a group that's likely to take some lumps during the season.
The kicking game is also still a concern; field goal kicking appears to be solid with Landon Ard handling those duties, but USC does not have a kicker that is going to put the ball into the end zone with regularity. That means that Joe Robinson's special teams unit will have to be solid in coverage this season.
Players who stepped up during spring.
The two most glaring examples come from the wide receiver spot, in Shamier Jeffery and Shaq Roland. Fans were frustrated with the lack of production from both; Jeffery as the brother of a former All-American (Alshon)) and second-round NFL pick that has a wealth of tools himself, Roland as a former South Carolina Mr. Football and four-star prospect that some (maybe unfairly) expected to make a big impact as a true freshman. It is no coincidence that improved offseason work ethic led to more reps and better production in the spring for both. Jeffery received calls from his brother and recent first-round pick Melvin Ingram, another who struggled early in his career, encouraging him to "get with the program" and Shamier was one of the best performers during the spring. Roland was much more consistent, and if he can keep focused has a chance to be a starter and have a much better season as a sophomore.
USC's starting offensive tackles, Brandon Shell and Corey Robinson, had very good offseasons and it showed in their play during the spring. Both are physically impressive, with Shell boasting elite athleticism (36.5 inch vertical jump as a 6-foot-6, 320-pounder). Sophomore running back Mike Davis also had a terrific spring, taking his two spring game carries for a total of 40 yards and a touchdown.
Cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree showed lockdown potential in the secondary and Hampton seems as focused as he has ever been, and safety Brison Williams moved over to the free safety position and had a solid spring as well.
Players who need to step up heading into the summer.
USC is on solid ground at a lot of starting positions, but still needs some other guys to step up at key backup spots in order to provide depth and in case of injury. It would be big if Martin and McWilliams could return from injury and be able to provide snaps at cornerback during the fall. T.J. Gurley should also be back in the preseason, which will allow USC to feel better about the boundary safety spot between him and Kadetrix Marcus.
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