Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pre-Season Top 25, SEC Predictions and USC’s 2011 Expectations

College football fans have different opinions regarding pre-season polls. I love pre-season polls! Why? It provides fodder during the dog days of summer, while radio and television pundits bloviate all off-season why Oklahoma should be ranked #1 versus Alabama or Oregon. It generates a buzz until the BCS poll makes its debut. Yes, pre-season polls are largely based on returning players and how the teams finished the previous season. Being ranked in the pre-season does not always guarantee a successful season. Who knew last year that Cameron Newton would evolve into the dynamite player he turned out to be last year for Auburn University? Carolina begins the season ranked #12 per USA Today/Coaches Poll. Looking back at the last five years (2006-2010) of the USA Today/Coaches Poll, specifically #12, two teams occupied this position the last five years. Wisconsin and California occupied the #12 pre-season ranking up until this year. Only in 2006 (California #14) and in 2010 (Wisconsin #8) did either team finish ranked in the polls at year’s end. So the pre-season #12 ranking is either jinxed or maybe it’s the two universities that had a monopoly on the pre-season distinction that were unlucky. Carolina will get its chance Saturday night to live up to its lofty pre-season ranking and hopefully Spurrier and Company will still be relevant in the USA Today/Coaches Poll when it’s relevant – at the end of the season! So, without further delay, here is my pre-season Top 25, and we’ll see if I am headed to Vegas at season’s end. I doubt it!

SPURspective’s Pre-Season Top 25:
1. Alabama
2. Florida State
3. Boise State
4. Stanford
5. Oklahoma
6. LSU
7. Oregon
8. Oklahoma State
9. South Carolina
10. Wisconsin
11. Texas A&M
12. Nebraska
13. Arkansas
14. Virginia Tech
15. Notre Dame
16. Michigan State
17. Mississippi State
18. Arizona State
19. Iowa
20. TCU
21. West Virginia
22. Florida
23. Texas
24. Brigham Young
25. Ohio State

SEC Projected Finish:
SEC East:
1. South Carolina
2. Florida
3. Tennessee
4. Georgia
5. Kentucky
6. Vanderbilt
SEC West:
1. Alabama
2. Arkansas
3. LSU
4. Mississippi State
5. Ole Miss
6. Auburn

Conference Champion:
South Carolina

South Carolina 2011 Season Analysis: 11-1 (Regular season); 7-1 (SEC Regular Season)

This season is so pivotal to the continued progression of South Carolina’s football program. The SEC East is still tumultuous and down from years past. Florida has a new regime and the Gators’ personnel doesn’t match-up with a Pro-Style offense, and the numbers (player roster) are down as far as bodies. Tennessee is still rebuilding under Dooley, but there is young talent at quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line. The Volunteers are still lacking depth on defense and IMHO are a year away from contending. Georgia is the most-hyped team in college football every single year. Yes, QB Aaron Murray is a very good player, but where is his supporting cast on offense? Annually, all we hear about is how good UGA’s offensive line is or the Dawgs have the next great Herschel Walker standing in the wings ready to take the SEC by storm. Georgia will struggle on offense (no A.J. Green) and no proven receiver or running back threat. The defense should be better as long as the Nose Guard in the 3-4 defense stays healthy. Kentucky is replacing a lot of star power on offense (RB Locke, WR Cobb and QB Hartline) without a lot of proven players that have stepped up. The defense is still status quo in Lexington even with a new Defensive Coordinator (former USC DC Rick Minter). UK will have to win a lot of offensive shootouts. Vanderbilt, God love ‘em, is still Vanderbilt, occupying the cellar in the SEC East with a new head coach James Franklin (former Maryland Offensive Coordinator), who tries to turn the proverbial ship around in the Music City.
I predict USC to navigate through its SEC East schedule unblemished. There is no team in the SEC East who scares me right now. So 5-0 record versus divisional opponents.

Fortunately, the Gamecocks do not draw the top two teams (Alabama & LSU) out of the SEC West. The Gamecocks do travel to Mississippi State where Dan Mullen has raised expectations in Starkville. The offense is expected to be very good with lots of skilled players returning, but the defense is replacing 5 of 7 starters on the front seven. The Gamecocks will have to prepare for a heavy dose of the run game from the Bulldogs, but the MSU passing game is still a work in progress with Chris Relf. Carolina also treks to Fayette”nam” (aka Fayetteville) to take on Bobby Petrino’s high-octane Razorbacks’ offense directed by new quarterback Tyler Wilson. This is always the worst match-up on Carolina’s schedule yearly. The Razorbacks have a very explosive offense with several highly rated WRs. The Hawgs did experience a severe setback early in pre-season when the SEC’s returning rusher, Kniles Davis, broke his ankle and is out for the year. Arkansas is breaking in three new OL, a new running back and a new starting quarterback. Defense isn’t Arkansas’ strong suit, but it is improving. I don’t like USC’s chances versus Arkansas. The final SEC West opponent is defending National Champion Auburn Tigers. Auburn is the lone team in the SEC that Carolina has never been able to “claw out” a victory against since USC joined the SEC. That streak finally comes to a halt at Williams-Brice Stadium on October 1st. Carolina owes Auburn a little payback for the butt-kicking USC was given last year in the Georgia Dome.

I predict USC will go 2-1 versus its SEC West opponents with the single loss coming at Arkansas.

The non-conference schedule is very manageable. Fans of East Carolina, Navy, Citadel and Clemson, no disrespect to any of you, but Carolina’s talent is much superior at this point. Carolina will treat the Pirates like the Navy Seals handle Somali pirates---quickly dispatch of them! God bless the United States Military by the way!

Navy is probably the most challenging non-conference opponent on the schedule. Thankfully, the Midshipmen will be breaking in a new quarterback (Dobbs finally graduated), and the defense is replacing several starters as well. The Gamecocks will be coming off a border war down in Athens preceding the Navy match-up, so I anticipate a sluggish first half. The score will be closer than most expect, and the rushing totals of Navy will highly distort USC’s run defense the rest of the year. In the end, USC beats Navy in a game that I still question why Carolina scheduled.

The Citadel is a tune-up in between the Florida and Clemson games. Citadel fans, Sparky Woods isn’t coaching Carolina, the Bulldogs gave up the wishbone offense, and Jack Douglas will not be suiting up at quarterback for the Citadel. George H. W. Bush is not president, and 1990 seems like eons ago when the Bulldogs last beat Carolina. I smell a rout in this game a la Troy last year. NEXT!!

The annual rivalry game versus Clemson closes out the regular season. Last time I saw Tajh Boyd; former Gamecocks DE Cliff Matthews dropped $0.25 in the hip pocket of Clemson’s backup QB and rode him down to the ground like a horse ride outside of Wal-Mart. Clemson has supposedly installed a brand new offense, new flavor of the month offensive coordinator Chad Morris, and a bunch of highly recruited 5-star freshmen. The Gamecocks have hammered the Tigers the last two years and handed Dabo Swinney his two worst losses of his short coaching career. I expect a third straight win over Clemson and more than likely the absolute worst loss in the Swinney era at Clemson.

I predict a 4-0 record in the non-conference portion of our schedule.

Buckle up Gamecock fans because 2011 is going to be a very exciting season. Carolina finally has a legitimate two/three-deep depth chart, talent up and down the roster, two competent QB’s. This team is too talented to not succeed this season. If USC can avoid injuries along the offensive line, eliminate blown assignments in the Secondary, then an exceptional season is in reach and an apex that garnet and black fans have never experienced.
Best case scenario:
11-1 (BCS bowl berth & possibly BCS Championship game if USC wins SEC title game)
Worst case scenario: 8-4 (Gator Bowl)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The USC Football Recruiting Evolution During the Spurrier Era

Every college football fan across the Southeast knows there are two seasons on the college football calendar. There is the actual football season in the fall, and the rest of the calendar is devoted to the decisions of high school seniors – known as football recruiting. I became susceptible to “recruiting fever” back in the mid-90’s and followed a website called Plano’s Page. I would supplement my need for football recruiting information by making a bi-weekly trip to Capitol City Newsstand, on the corner of Main & Gervais streets in downtown Columbia, and purchase the Recruiting News publication written by Phil Kornblut. In today’s digital world there is no need to wait for the written word, when there are a plethora of internet options for us recruit-niks to choose. I advocate when it comes to inside information on Gamecocks football, basketball, baseball and especially recruiting, which encompasses all USC sports. This site comprises the best team of Gamecocks recruiting analysts/insiders, Tony Morrell (Gamecock Insider), JC Shurburtt (National Director of Recruiting for, Josh Low (Recruiting Analyst), William Gunter (basketball insider) and John Whittle (baseball insider), and IMHO if you want to invest $9.95/month, choose when it comes to Gamecocks’ recruiting. I find it well worth the small investment.

As you can tell, I follow Carolina football recruiting and have for 15-plus years. There is an obvious reason why the Gamecocks made its first appearance in the SEC Championship Game last year, and the answer is that the depth chart has been transformed dramatically since 2006. I found a great article that JC Shurburtt posted on that looked back at the institutions USC was going head-to-head with for recruits since the highly acclaimed 2007 Signing class of Garcia, Culliver, Matthews and Ajiboye. In the last four cycles (’08,’09, ’10 & ’11), Carolina has battled upper tier SEC powers (BAMA, UF, UGA, Auburn & UT) and won its fair share of recruiting wars. Remember in 2008 Clemson signed a Top 5 National class, which included DaQuan Bowers and the Tigers cleaned USC’s clock in-state that year. Carolina only signed one top five recruit inside the Palmetto State borders in 2008 and that prospect was C.C Whitlock. The fall of 2008 saw in-state rival Clemson stumble after a Top 10 pre-season ranking, by mid-season Tommy Bowden resigned and a young Wide Receiver’s coach named Dabo Swinney took the reins of the Tigers’ football program. Swinney would be named Clemson’s Head Football Coach one week after pummeling Spurrier and the Gamecocks in Death Valley but the recruiting DNA at USC had begun to change mid-October of 2008, when USC landed Stephon Gilmore (beat BAMA), then Devonte Holloman de-committed from Clemson post-Bowden resignation and committed to USC and then, on Signing Day Eve in February 2009, Calhoun County star Alshon Jefferey turned down overtures from Tennessee HC Lane Kiffen (remember the infamous Kiffen comment, “If you go to South Carolina you will end up pumping gas”?) and national power Southern Cal. In 2010, USC landed South Carolina Mr. Football RB Marcus Lattimore in a heated recruiting battle with Auburn. Last year, the Gamecocks did very well in-state and secured a number of highly rated prospects, especially along the defensive line – none bigger than Jadeveon Clowney, who also considered Alabama and Clemson. This year, the state of South Carolina is down talent wise; so USC has gone into the border states (GA & NC), Florida and then spot recruiting up I-95 in the New Jersey and the D.C areas.

Because The Big Spur is a subscription-only site, I can’t share their information out of respect for their subscriber base, so if you’re a member, be sure to check out JC Shurburtt’s head-to-head analysis.

It is clear that the performance level on the field at Williams-Brice is a product of better player evaluations, the best set of recruiters a Carolina staff has ever enjoyed, and Spurrier and company have sealed the Palmetto State borders and convinced the top talent to stay home and play in the SEC.

As for next year, our 2012 (Verbal Commitments) are already very promising…
Shaq Roland (SC)- USC beat Georgia and Alabama
Brock Stadnik (NC)- USC beat Virginia Tech, Auburn and others
Jody Fuller (NC)- USC beat North Carolina, Clemson and others
Kwinton Smith (SC)- USC beat Florida, LSU and Alabama
Kaiwan Lewis (NJ)- USC beat Florida and Tennessee
Joe Harris (GA)- USC beat Georgia/Mississippi State
Kelvin Rainey (FL)- USC beat Georgia/Miami
Brendan Nosovitch (PA)- USC beat Virginia
Kyle Fleetwood (GA)- USC beat Ole Miss, Penn State, Stanford and Vandy
T.J. Gurley (GA)- USC beat Mississippi State
Cody Waldrop (FL)- USC beat Georgia
T.J. Holloman (GA)- USC beat Louisville
Carlos Hood (GA)- USC
Rico McWilliams (GA)- USC beat South Florida- 20-plus offers
Darius English (GA)- USC beat Auburn
Kendric Salley (SC)- USC was only offer
Clayton Stadnik (NC)- USC beat Virginia Tech and Wake Forest (package deal with his brother Brock)
Mason Zandi (SC)- USC beat Clemson

2012 Prospects that Carolina is still pursuing in recruiting:
Safety: Elijah Shumate (New Jersey) – USC, Rutgers & Notre Dame; USC leads
Spur: Jordan Diggs (Florida) – USC legacy with 20-plus offers; USC frontrunner
Defensive lineman: Jonathan Bullard (North Carolina) – USC, Florida, Clemson and Alabama; UF, USC & Clemson lead
Athlete: Chris Brown (Hanahan, SC) – USC, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame; USC leads
Cornerback: Chaz Elder (Atlanta, GA) - USC, UGA and Vanderbilt; USC leads
Defensive End/Linebacker: Tyriq McCord (Tampa, FL) – USC & Florida; USC leads; McCord attends Staphen Garcia's former high school
Athlete: Stefon Diggs (Maryland) – Miami, Auburn, USC, Florida & Alabama
Defensive Lineman: Carlos Watkins (North Carolina) – Clemson, Florida, Alabama and USC; Clemson leads
Eddie Goldman (Washington, D.C.) – Alabama, Florida State, Auburn, Clemson, Maryland, Cal, Miami (USC is outside of the top seven but will continue to recruit Goldman); BAMA & FSU lead
Running Back: Keith Marshall (Raleigh, NC) – UGA leads with UNC, Notre Dame & USC trailing; if UGA has a tumultuos season then the chase for Marshall gets really interesting
Linebacker: Rapheal Kirby (Stone Mountain, GA) - Miami Commitment; considering USC
Linebacker: Reggie Northrup (Jacksonville, FL) - Miami commitment; considering USC
Running Back: Jela Duncan (Charlotte, NC) - favors Duke University but if USC offers, Carolina can really become a factor.

South Carolina continues to ramp up its recruiting efforts as it enjoys more and more success on the field. It is very rare in past recruiting cycles for USC to go out-of-state and win head-to-head battles with upper tier SEC powers in those traditional powers’ backyards (i.e. UGA & UF). Carolina has also turned the tide versus Clemson in regards to in-state recruiting were USC has signed the last three #1 rated SC player (Gilmore, Lattimore and Clowney) and has a commitment from 2012’s top in-state prospect, Shaq Roland of Lexington, SC. As you can see, the caliber of athlete that Carolina is recruiting is raising the bar of expectations on the field. The only way to win in the SEC is with “jimmy‘s & joe’s” and the depth chart’s DNA is significantly being upgraded across the board.
Tomorrow I will have my preseason Top 25 and USC’s 2011 forecast.

Go Gamecocks!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Five Defensive “Off the Radar” Contributors in 2011

The last blog we discussed offensive undervalued players in USC’s pre-season camp. Today we will take a look at five off the radar defensive contributors who need to perform well for the upcoming 2011 season to be successful. It’s a given that USC potentially has three standout playmakers on defense this year. IMHO DL Travian Robertson, DE Devin Taylor and CB Stephon Gilmore are irreplaceable, because each player has experience and production over the course of their playing careers. USC must develop a supporting cast on defense that steps out of the shadows of the aforementioned three players.

My first underappreciated Gamecock defender seems like a forgotten man since he barely saw the field last year due to injury. Middle Linebacker Shaq Wilson, a redshirt junior, returns to the starting lineup in 2011 after succumbing to a devastating hamstring injury last year on the first day of pre-season practice. Wilson played briefly at Auburn but never recovered from the hamstring injury and took a medical redshirt. The Jacksonville, FL native, the 2009 leading tackler, is healthy and ready to redeem himself as the “quarterback” of the Carolina defense. The Gamecocks missed Wilson last year and the USC defense suffered coverage breakdowns and alignment mistakes. Wilson’s presence alone on defense will eliminate the mental lapses and bring stability to the middle of the Carolina defense, especially the front seven.

Staying in the middle of the defense, my next undervalued Gamecock defender is Defensive Tackle Byron Jerideau. The junior out of Colleton County South Carolina via Fort Scot Community College enters this year a new man, literally, as he has lost almost 35-40 pounds. Jerideau came to USC last year tipping the scales at 350 pounds and barely reaching six feet in height. He was severely out of shape and as DL Coach Brad Lawing has stated he was bordering on unhealthy in regard to his weight. Jerideau got serious about his weight and completely resculpted his body over the off-season. Now the big d-tackle is better conditioned and primed to receive several meaningful snaps in the d-line rotation backing up Travian Robertson. I expect Jerideau to log anywhere from 20-25 snaps a game this year and significantly increase his production.

Shifting outside to the perimeter of the defensive line, we find a player for some reason that has become an afterthought with the gluttony of defensive lineman at USC. Do you remember who led the Gamecocks in sacks last year? Devin Taylor? Nope! Cliff Matthews? Nope! The answer is Melvin Ingram, who registered nine sacks in 2010. The redshirt senior from Rockingham, NC is one of the best overall athletes on the team and one of the strongest. Ingram is poised to capitalize on his production in the sacks category this year with all the attention being shown to his “sack mates” Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney. Ingram is an interchangeable player on the d-line, as he starts outside at defensive end and then will slide inside on passing downs to rush the passer with Clowney, Taylor and Robertson forming a fearsome foursome on 3rd & long.

I began this post focused on the middle of the defense and there is no better security blanket for a defense than having a Free Safety patrolling the deep middle of the field. Redshirt freshman Jimmy Legree from Beaufort, SC (HS teammate of Devin Taylor) will make his first career start at Free Safety versus East Carolina. If you remember last year, miscommunication in the Secondary cost Carolina at least one win (Kentucky game) and several embarrassing blown coverage assignments that led to uncontested touchdowns. Coaches and teammates have praised Legree in pre-season camp for his development at the Free Safety position. Let’s remember Legree was moved to Free Safety post-Spring Game; so ECU will be his first live action. Legree’s athleticism and speed allow him to go hash mark-to-hash mark and provide deep safety help in the vertical passing game, which ultimately opposing teams will challenge to see if the redshirt freshman is disciplined in his coverage assignments.

The last underestimated contributor is senior cornerback Akeem Auguste. The Hollywood, FL senior is back at his more natural position of Cornerback in 2011, after making a cameo appearance at Free Safety, which allowed former Gamecock Chris Culliver to shift to cornerback due to Culliver’s ailing shoulder last year. Auguste registered the most tackles (50) of his career last year but surprisingly has never recorded an interception in his four-year career at USC. Auguste is a more natural cornerback IMHO versus a safety, and really thrives on man-to-man coverage. Auguste has missed most of pre-season camp, as he has been recovering from an injury in the arch of his foot. Auguste returned to practice last week; but there is no guarantee he overtakes C.C. Whitlock at the cornerback position opposite Gilmore for the ECU game. Carolina needs a healthy Auguste at Cornerback to help shore up a woeful Pass Defense from 2010 that surrendered over 240 yards per game.

We are now in game week mode (finally!) and throughout this week I will post a new blog each day. Look for my recruiting update, preseason Top 25, 2011 Gamecocks prediction, five keys to victory versus East Carolina and finally on Friday my USC/ECU prediction.

Go Gamecocks!!!

Five Offensive “Off the Radar” Contributors in 2011

The two last entries we discussed offensive and defensive standouts in pre-season camp from the Gamecocks 2011 recruiting class. Today we will take a look at five off the radar offensive contributors who need to succeed for the upcoming 2011 season to be successful. It’s a given that USC potentially has three vital playmakers on offense this year. IMHO RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Alshon Jeffrey and QB Stephen Garcia collectively have the potential to be the most explosive three-headed offensive juggernaut in college football, but in order to achieve the success this Carolina team seeks, USC must find playmakers and a few role players to step forward on the field.
The first undervalued player is on the offensive line at the Center position. T.J. Johnson is a warrior and an anchor on the offensive line for the Gamecocks. He is entering his third consecutive year as a starter on the OL and second season at the Center position. Johnson makes all the calls and most importantly snaps the ball to the QB to jumpstart the offense. You might question “snapping” the ball as relevant or a foregone conclusion, but executing the Zone Read Option play involves a direct snap in Shotgun formation from Center to QB. Bad snaps can equal turnovers or negative yards, so just a simple snap can impact the outcome of a tight game. It is crucial Johnson stays healthy in 2011. Anyone remember last year’s Arkansas game when Johnson was injured and true freshman Ronald Patrick was called upon? If Johnson stays healthy and eliminates bad snaps, then the Gamecocks’ offensive fireworks will be explosive.

My next underestimated contributor is TE/H-Back Justice Cunningham. Cunningham is a throwback player type. He is a blue collar player who loves putting his hand in a three-point stance, firing off the ball and smacking the defensive player across the line of scrimmage in the mouth. Cunningham is being counted on to replace 2010 Team Captain Patrick Dimarco’s role as lead blocker and catch a pass every now and then. Cunningham is by far the best blocker on the team and has worked on his receiving skills over the off-season. I look for his production to increase in the receiving department, but his primary role on this team will be to either lead block for Lattimore in the I-formation when Carolina goes to its “downhill” running game or seal off the end when the Gamecocks go to the Zone Read play.

Another underappreciated element for this offense’s progression is for a 2nd & 3rd WR to step up and provide alternative options in the USC passing game. My pick to provide more support is Sophomore WR Ace Sanders. Sanders is a quick twitch, elusive WR in the slot position. From all accounts, Sanders really challenged himself in the off-season to add strength, weight and develop as a leader. From all reports in practice, Sanders has caught everything thrown to him and improved his quickness and speed. Sanders immersed himself in the playbook and now demonstrates better command of the offensive concepts. I expect a huge jump in production from Ace Sanders this year.

I mentioned my next underrated contributor when I discussed Offensive newcomer impressions in an earlier blog. If USC is to return to the Georgia Dome, then RB Shon Carson must provide 10-12 rushes per game to minimize the “wear & tear” on Lattimore over the course of a 14-game schedule (yes, I said 14-game schedule!). Carson will complement Lattimore’s style and bring a nice change of pace for opposing defenses. Carson has shown in practice to be physical between the tackles, exhibits an ability to bounce a play outside, and he is the fastest RB on the roster. Carson will not redshirt in 2011.

My final underappreciated player on offense may be a surprise, but IMHO this player must perform to a higher standard if USC is going to click on offense. At RG, Terrance Campbell must finally produce as a sixth year senior on the interior of the OL. Campbell has been a nice leader during the off-season and is well-liked by teammates. In years past, Campbell has been hurt and, at times, seemed to be overwhelmed physically by opposing SEC d-tackles. Reports from pre-season camp have been positive regarding the starting OL and in particular Terrance Campbell. As long as the sixth year senior can be serviceable, then that will provide stability to the interior of the offensive line where experience is severely lacking.

Next blog I reveal me "off the radar" contributors on defense for 2011.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Defensive Pre-Season Camp Freshmen Standouts

The Gamecocks have entered game week as Carolina prepares for East Carolina out of Conference USA. Let’s take a look at some freshmen standouts of pre-season camp out on the Proving Grounds. The Gamecocks welcomed one of the most athletic and decorated recruiting classes to USC under the Steve Spurrier era. Names like Clowney, Dukes, Quarles and Shell were all players to get excited about in this class especially on defense. Now while Clowney has not disappointed there are some names from the 2011 recruiting class that have turned some heads which non-recruit-niks (unlike me) would not recognize. Here are some freshmen defensive playmakers in Gamecocks camp:
1) Defensive End Jadeveon Clowney (Rock Hill, SC): Would I be credible at all if I did not list Clowney first??? Clowney so far has lived up to the hype as the nation’s #1 recruit. Per observations at practice Clowney has the most explosive first step of any DL at Carolina. Sometimes his first step is almost too explosive as he has been guilty of jumping off sides at times. Clowney’s instinctive pass rushing prowess is off the charts! At times he has been so disruptive during pass skeleton drills that Spurrier has stated the coaches need to tell him to “slow down”. Clowney’s athleticism is off the charts. He must continue to mature and learn the tendencies of college football but per the coaches he is very coachable and a well-grounded young man.

2) Linebacker Cedric Cooper (Lithonia, GA): Cooper really captured the attention of Ellis Johnson early in camp with his speed and physicality. In years past Cooper would definitely be in the two-deep rotation but fortunately USC is stock piling talent and is afforded the luxury to redshirt players like Cooper. Cooper is very instinctive at the MLB position with great lateral quickness and really covers a lot of ground. Nice get by Lorenzo Ward late in the 2011 Signing class.

3) Free Safety Brison Williams (Warner Robbins, GA): Williams was actually a member of the 2010 Signing class but fell short academically and had to enroll at Fork Union Prep School for a year. He enrolled at USC in January 2011 and immediately began to exhibit the athleticism the Carolina coaches saw him display down in South Georgia in high school. Williams was physically ready to play this year and really providing starting Free Safety Jimmy Legree some quality competition back in the Secondary. Unfortunately Williams suffered a broken arm during the second scrimmage is out for a 6-8 week period. I have seen conflicting reports whether Williams will redshirt or play in 2011 after he recovers from his injury.

4) Cornerback Ahmad Christian (Jacksonville, FL): Christian is an interesting prospect. He was a 46th round draft choice of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011 MLB Draft, but he really wanted to play college football. Christian was one of the final three commitments (Cooper and Clowney rounded out the class) to cast his lot with Carolina. Many casual recruiting fans might have written Christian off as an afterthought with all the Clowney hype, but Christian has come into fall camp and really turned heads. His fearless attitude in the one-on-one drills where he has defended some of the better Gamecocks’ WR’s like Alshon Jeffery or Ace Sanders and the freshman has held his own in those one-on-one battles. Christian has good speed, demonstrates excellent hips to play Cornerback and plays with a physical presence at the CB position.

Next blog I will focus on the undervalued contributors on offense & defense that will be a key to USC’s successful 2011 football season.

Offensive Pre-Season Camp Newcomer Standouts

The Gamecocks have entered game week as USC prepares for East Carolina out of Conference USA. Before I dive into USC/ECU breakdowns, let’s take a look at some highlights of pre-season camp out on the Proving Grounds. The Gamecocks welcomed one of the most athletic and decorated recruiting classes to USC in the Steve Spurrier era. Names like Jadeveon Clowney, Phillip Dukes, Kelcy Quarles and Brandon Shell were all players to get excited about in this class especially on defense. While Clowney has not disappointed, there are some names from the 2011 recruiting class that have turned some heads which non-recruit-niks (unlike me) would not recognize. Here are some offensive standouts in Gamecocks camp.

1) Wide Receiver Damiere Byrd (Sicklerville, New Jersey): Byrd came into school a renowned high school track star with world class speed that played football. He is one of the offensive newcomers that continue to be singled out by coaches as USC ends pre-season camp. Byrd has already laid claim to the fastest Gamecock football player (reportedly runs sub 4.3/40 yard dash & edged out CB Marty Markett, former fastest Gamecock, in a foot race) but surprising to his coaches and teammates, Byrd’s track speed translates over to the football field. Byrd catches the ball well, executes solid, fundamental route running and regularly gets behind the defensive secondary with his elite speed. Byrd will finally add an element of superior speed to Spurrier’s offense this year and should pose a legitimate down field threat in the vertical passing attack for USC’s starting quarterback.

2) Running Back Shon Carson (Lake City, SC): Carson came to USC as a duo sport star in baseball and football. He was drafted in the 44th round by the Cincinnati Reds and quite frankly was expected to redshirt this year with USC’s backfield already crowded with Marcus Lattimore, Kenny Miles and Eric Baker. Somehow Carson never got the redshirt memo and currently has cemented himself as the #2 RB behind Lattimore eclipsing Miles as the back-up to #21. Carson brings a dimension of speed & quickness to the Carolina offense and provides a change of pace option when Lattimore needs a breather. Per practice observations, Carson for only being 5’8” is a powerful runner between the tackles and has the quickest burst of any RB on the roster. Carson also demonstrates above excellent skills catching the football.

3) Wide Receiver KJ Brent (Waxhaw, NC): Brent came to USC (first recruit to commit in the 2011 class) with a reputation of being a long, jump ball type of prospect. Brent is 6’4” around 190 pounds and has been a pleasant surprise since he was an overshadowed recruit in the 2011 class by Byrd and Shamier Jeffery. Brent has impressed his coaches and teammates with the uncanny ability to catch everything thrown to him and his polished route running coming out of high school. In years past Brent would definitely play, but the 2011 Gamecocks’ roster is stacked at the WR position, so Brent will get a chance to gain strength & weight under Coach Craig Fitzgerald in the S&C program.

4) Wide Receiver/Kick-Off Returner Bruce Ellington (Berkeley, SC): Last time we saw Ellington playing football was in December 2009 at Williams-Brice as he led his Berkeley High Stags to a 4-A state championship title and being named the runner-up for the Mr. Football award to Marcus Lattimore. By all accounts Ellington brings a lot of quickness and speed to the slot receiver position which has been severely lacking in Spurrier’s first six seasons. Now Ellington is expected to show some rust (he played basketball only in 2010/2011 Spring semester at USC) since he has not played football since December 2009, but look for him to bring a dynamic upgrade to the Kick-Off Return game, the Wildcock formation and the slot WR position. I think Ellington will get most of his PT at the QB position running the Wildcock and SPT’s until he becomes more familiar with the WR position. Ellington didn’t come over to the football team to sit the bench so you can be assured USC’s coaches will design schemes for him to utilize his athleticism whether at QB, WR or KR Return man on the gridiron.

5) RB Brandon Wilds (Blythewood, SC): Wilds came to Carolina sort of a forgotten man with all the hype surrounding more highly regarded teammates in the 2011 class. But Wilds has grabbed the attention of RB Coach Jay Graham and HC Steve Spurrier with Wilds’ performance up to this point in pre-season camp. Wilds is a big back at 6’2”/230 pounds with quickness and deceptive speed. He is built similar to Brian Maddox except quicker and faster. Coaches have mentioned Wilds prominently post-scrimmages and expect the true freshman to make contributions on Special Teams mostly in 2011. He brings an added physical dimension to the running game similar to Lattimore. I am not sure Wilds get many carries on offense but I believe the newcomer from Blythewood avoids a redshirt.

Next feature I will look at a few freshmen on defense that have stood out through pre-season camp.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Kick Off

It’s late summer in South Carolina.  It’s hot, humid and unless you are a MLB junkie or NASCAR fanatic there are slim-pickings on television for sports aficionados. (I actually recommend the USA Network and check out Suits, Thursdays @ 10 p.m., and Necessary Roughness, Wednesdays @ 9 p.m., as non-sport alternatives until college football kicks off on September 1st).  Once the calendar flips to August, thousands of college football fans across the Southeast rise out of the doldrums, awakening to dreams of conference championships and undefeated seasons capped off by hoisting the BCS National Championship Trophy inside The Superdome in New Orleans in early January 2012.  Right now, there are 120 NCAA college football teams across the country with perfect records and aspirations soaring to new heights before the first snap.

Speaking of ambitions, the above normal expectations amongst the fan base at the University of South Carolina where the Gamecocks enjoy a very loyal and passionate fan base has skyrocketed exponentially in 2011.  Why?  Well let us look in the rearview mirror before we look ahead to the Gamecocks’ upcoming season.  The expectations for the Gamecocks have been ratcheted up significantly in 2011 because USC is coming off its first SEC East Division title and its initial appearance in the SEC Championship game played in the Georgia Dome last December.  2010 marked the first time since the SEC realigned in 1992 that the SEC East was not represented in the Georgia Dome by UGA, UF or UT.  Even though Carolina got steamrolled by Auburn, the University finally achieved some credibility amongst college football “talking heads” outside of the Palmetto State.  My opinion is that until last year’s achievements, most fans across the SEC would admit that USC has brought very little to the SEC as far as marketability.  I am not diminishing Ray Tanner’s (a first-class individual, as is his program) back-to-back National Championships in baseball but lets be honest, football is king in the SEC and unless there are divisional or championship banners displayed in your football stadium you are not a major player in the eyes of your SEC brethren.

IMHO, the 2011 football campaign is the single most important season in the mediocre 119-year-old history of University of South Carolina football.  USC accomplished a lot of “firsts” last year, but the shine from those accomplishments faded slightly with back-to-back losses to end the 2010 campaign - while also coming up one win shy of the elusive 10-game win plateau, which the program has only achieved once in school history back in 1984, that special season remembered affectionately as Black Magic.  After the loss to FSU in the Peach Bowl, everyone in Gamecock country turned their sights to football recruiting and specifically one stud recruit, Jadeveon Clowney, out of South Pointe HS in Rock Hill, SC, who draws comparison to former Gator great Jevon “The Freak” Kearse.  Clowney was rated the consensus #1 recruit from every major recruiting service in the country.  Clowney was the subject of an intense recruiting battle between USC, Clemson and Alabama.  Clowney made Valentine’s Day extra “sweet” for Gamecocks fans around the world when he donned the Garnet and Black hat during his live ESPN television announcement.  This was the first time a unanimous #1 high school recruit chose a team that was not coming off a national championship.  With the Clowney bow on the recruiting season, USC fans ratcheted up aspirations of a dream season in the coming fall.  The question to all Carolina fans is, do the Gamecocks have the key ingredients on campus for a special season or will anticipation turn to angst as Carolina fans return to reality with pie in our collective faces?