COLUMBIA — Steve Spurrier isn’t shy about expressing his pride about what South Carolina has accomplished under his watch. As he prepares for his ninth season with the Gamecocks, they are in a golden age. They played in the Southeastern Conference championship game in 2010 and finished 11-2 in both 2011 and 2012. Since 2010, they’ve won 31 of 40 games.
But Spurrier is also quick to note that he wants more for USC – namely, another trip to the conference title game, and a chance to win the school’s first ever SEC championship. As the Gamecocks try to do that this fall, they will return two proven quarterbacks and one of college football’s best players, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the likely No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
Between now and the Aug. 29 Thursday night opener against North Carolina in Columbia, the Gamecocks have about a month’s worth of August practices and 15 practice sessions this spring, starting with today’s 3 p.m. workout.
Spurrier obviously doesn’t expect to have all the answers by April 13, when USC plays its spring game, but here are five of the storylines his team will address this spring …
Answering questions at quarterback
Probably no team in the country had a more exciting final offensive snap last season than USC. While Clowney’s unblocked hit of Vincent Smith in the bowl got far more replays, Dylan Thompson’s 32-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds left in the game was the decisive score in a 33-28 USC victory.
Thompson played well enough as a backup in 2012 that many observers wondered if he will challenge for a bigger role as a junior in 2013. Spurrier has played two quarterbacks before, and he just might end up rotating Thompson with senior Connor Shaw this fall. But they won’t compete this spring, because Shaw is out after undergoing foot surgery.
Still, as he gets first-team snaps, Thompson can further demonstrate his progress this spring.
Many new faces at linebacker
USC lost all three starting linebackers.
At mike, true sophomore Kaiwan Lewis and redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman will compete to replace Reginald Bowens.
At will, third-year sophomore Cedrick Cooper seems the likely replacement for Shaq Wilson, but Cooper is out this spring because of knee surgery
That leaves sophomore Marcquis Roberts and redshirt freshman Kelvin Rainey (a converted tight end) as the top two options.
Junior Sharrod Golightly is currently listed ahead of redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs at spur.
Lattimore is off to the NFL after suffering a season-ending knee injury for the second straight fall. The top candidate to replace him is sophomore Mike Davis, who was the highest-rated recruit in USC’s Class of 2012. Listed behind Davis are Brandon Wilds, Kendric Salley and Shon Carson, who is splitting time with USC’s baseball team.
Last season, Davis had 52 carries for 275 yards and two touchdowns. The game after Lattimore went down, Davis had 13 carries for 53 yards against Arkansas. Two games later, he had 12 carries for 43 yards against Clemson. He must continue to improve his pass protection to become a more complete player.
CAN BYRD BREAK OUT?
Ellington is on the spring roster and seems likely to play football for the third straight year, after playing only basketball as a freshman. But with Ace Sanders off to the NFL a year early, USC needs another receiver to fill the void left by Sanders, who had 45 catches for 531 yards and nine touchdowns last year.
Byrd is one of the fastest Gamecocks, but hasn’t done much in his first two years. As a true freshman in 2011, he had just one catch for 16 yards. Last season, he had 14 catches for 366 yards and three touchdowns. He had just two catches in the final six games, both in the bowl.
GUYS OTHER THAN CLOWNEY
USC has two new starters on the defensive line.
Right now, senior Chaz Sutton is scheduled to replace Devin Taylor at end and junior J.T. Surratt is on track to replace Byron Jerideau at tackle.
Sutton is a career backup who had the best season of his career in 2012 (seven tackles for loss, including five sacks) while playing extensively in the rabbits package, with four ends on the field at once. He doesn’t have to dominate like Clowney, but can he be a productive every-down end?