SEC spring practice preview: South Carolina

South Carolina Gamecocks
2009: 7-6 (3-5)

South Carolina couldn’t have played any worse in its Papajohns.com Bowl loss to Connecticut to close out the 2009 season. Head coach Steve Spurrier described the debacle as a “sad, sad effort” — not quite what you’d expect from a Gamecocks program completing its fifth season with Spurrier at the helm.

But it’s a new year, and Spurrier apparently is very eager to write a new chapter in Columbia, as the Old Ball Coach decided to move up his spring practice by two weeks, opting to open camp on Thursday before taking spring break off and resuming activities on March 16.

Spurrier has reasons to be optimistic, starting with five-star recruit Marcus Lattimore, who chose to stay in-state instead of enrolling at Auburn. The running back has a chance to play immediately, but the question remains how committed are the Gamecocks to running the rock in 2010?

While Jarvis Giles and Kenny Miles showed promise as freshmen, they didn’t get enough carries within the flow of the offense for the Gamecocks to move the chains. Steve Spurrier Jr., who has been the primary play-caller the last two seasons, will have to heed the advice of his father, who has promised to get better in the running game. But how much will not having a singular play-caller affect the rushing attack? Too many times USC put the ball in the hands of quarterback Stephen Garcia, and that led to stalled drives. Don’t worry, more on the enigmatic Garcia in a moment.

Will the Ball Coach eventually wrest away play-calling duties from Junior and take full control of the offense?

The rushing attack will also struggle to produce consistently if the offensive line once again cannot become a formidable unit. Appalachian State’s Shawn Elliott was brought in as Spurrier’s third offensive line coach in as many seasons, and while he’ll be working with three returning starters, nearly every spot on the line is up for grabs. Tackle Rokevious Watkins and guard Nick Allison redshirted last season and can upgrade the line’s talent level immediately.

Onto Garcia, who can look so good at times, but so horrible on too many other occasions. It’s obvious that Garcia isn’t going to be the savior of South Carolina football, so now it comes down to how consistent the Tampa native can be in this offense. Putting various legal troubles in the past is a start, and while he threw for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, his 10 interceptions always seemed to come at the worst times. It doesn’t help that he did nothing to quiet the skeptics by having an awful bowl game — passing for 129 yards and a pick in the loss to UConn.

“Consistency” is the word Spurrier often uses in discussing Garcia, but how close are incoming freshmen Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson to getting a shot? Shaw is currently enrolled in school and will get reps in spring drills.

“Stephen should be able to hold his starting position, but I think last year was the only year I've ever coached where I had one quarterback and no matter what he did he stayed in the game,” Spurrier said. “I still believe if a guy goes bad, you'd like to have someone else to put in.”

Let’s be honest: quarterback play is still the key to a successful Spurrier-led team.

Garcia, or whoever ends up getting the bulk of the time under center, will be helped by having both Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery on the field at the same time. The tall wideouts combined for 77 receptions, 1,203 yards and eight touchdowns as freshmen in 2009. They can help make the offense explosive if the running game is able to keep opposing defenses honest.

While the offense has its own concerns, how in the world does South Carolina replace outside linebacker Eric Norwood, who seemed to be Mr. Thursday Night Football?

Shaq Wilson could move from the middle to Norwood’s old spot on the weak side and he does possess dangerous blitzing ability. Reggie Bowens and Tony Straughter can also help make up for the loss. Bowens, however, will miss the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Carolina also loses defensive end Clifton Geathers, who was often overshadowed by Norwood. Redshirt freshman Chaz Sutton and sophomore Devin Taylor will get the first crack at taking over for Geathers, and both have the chance to make the line a strength of the defense.

Spurrier signed a one-year contract extension that would keep him in Columbia through 2013, and he said he would like to coach four or five more years. But if Garcia — or any other quarterback recruit — doesn’t eventually pan out, will Spurrier be long for the Gamecocks?

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