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March 16, 2010

Gamecocks look to break through -- again

The last time we saw South Carolina on the field, the Gamecocks put forth a desultory effort in losing to Connecticut in the Papajohns.com Bowl. That loss removed some of the excitement that had built after a dominating performance in the regular-season finale against Clemson.

The end result was a 7-6 record, a disappointing finish to a season that started 5-1.

Despite the mediocre record, there is reason for optimism this spring. While the Gamecocks have questions, so, too, do each of the other teams in the SEC East. In short, the pieces look to be there for a breakthrough season of sorts. Alas, that has been said before about the Gamecocks.

Here's a look at South Carolina as it prepares for spring drills

SOUTH CAROLINA AT-A-GLANCE
South Carolina needs a big season from quarterback Stephen Garcia.
THE BASICS
Coach: Steve Spurrier
Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in the SEC. Lost 20-7 to Connecticut in the Papajohns.com Bowl.
Spring dates: March 16-April 17
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (8): FB Patrick DiMarco, T Hutch Eckerson, QB Stephen Garcia, WR Alshon Jeffery, G T.J. Johnson (moving to C), TB Kenny Miles, T Kyle Nunn, TE Weslye Saunders.
Defense (7): T Ladi Ajiboye, S Antonio Allen, CB Akeem Auguste (moving to FS), FS Chris Culliver (moving to CB), CB Stephon Gilmore, E Cliff Matthews, LB Shaq Wilson.
Special teams (1): K/P Spencer Lanning.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Though just one starting wide receiver returns, the Gamecocks have the pieces in place for a high-powered passing attack. Alshon Jeffery was a freshman All-SEC selection, Tori Gurley has a ton of potential because of his size/speed combination and junior Jason Barnes and senior Dion LeCorn have the ability to be solid complementary players. TE Weslye Saunders has star potential, too. Though the offensive linemen will be working with their third position coach in as many seasons, the unit has a chance to be the best in coach Steve Spurrier's six-season tenure. The key is whether T.J. Johnson, another freshman All-SEC selection, makes a smooth transition from guard to center. The secondary should be solid, though the spring absence of Chris Culliver (shoulder surgery) -- who is moving from free safety to corner -- could hurt.

HELP IS NEEDED

There will be two new starters on the defensive line, and the Gamecocks also must develop some depth there. The running game was weak last season, but with the line looking as if it could be coming together, perhaps the rushing attack will improve, too. Still, the Gamecocks need to decide on a feature back and a pecking order behind him. While Spencer Lanning returns, the special teams still need work. The Gamecocks allowed three kickoff-return touchdowns last season.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

WR Tori Gurley: Gurley, who is 6 feet 5 and 230 pounds, caught 31 passes last season as a redshirt freshman. The Gamecocks are counting on better production this season, and as such, have moved Gurley to the slot receiver role. A 230-pound slot receiver, usually the spot for a quick darter type? If Gurley adapts quickly to the role this spring, he could be a star in the slot this fall.

LB Rodney Paulk: Paulk, a senior, never has fulfilled his potential because of a litany of injuries. With star LB Eric Norwood gone, the Gamecocks need Paulk to stay healthy and make plays. If Paulk has trouble this spring, the Gamecocks could have trouble this fall.

DE Devin Taylor: Clifton Geathers unexpectedly turned pro after last season, but it might not matter if Taylor makes the normal jump in production from his freshman season to his sophomore season. Taylor has the physical tools (he's 6-8 and 244 pounds) to eventually be an All-SEC performer; he just needs to work on his consistency this spring and gain some more weight this summer.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

QB Stephen Garcia: Garcia is a junior, and there's really no more time to wait for him to become a solid and consistent starter. He showed signs last season, and coaches will be watching this spring to make sure he's ready to take the next step this fall. Garcia threw 17 TDs and 10 picks last season, completing 55.3 percent of his passes. He needs to work on getting that completion percentage to at least 60 percent. Obviously, it would help his cause if the running game was more consistent, but you can't put all the blame on Garcia's mistakes on a shaky running game.

THE BUZZ

If everything breaks right this season, the Gamecocks could finish second in the SEC East. But for everything to break right this fall, a lot of work has to be done this spring. Getting the running game in gear is important. Spurrier never really has had a running game he can count on while he has been at South Carolina. It's also important for Garcia to gain some consistency -- and for the defensive line to come together.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.


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