**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe**
Starting SEC play on the road is a big challenge. Doing it with a banged-up team just adds to the worries of South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook.
"We've got some guys banged up,and it's not the time to be banged up to go on the road in this league," said Holbrook, whose No. 7 Gamecocks will travel to Tennessee for a three-game conference series this weekend. "We're going to have our work cut out for us going up there, probably not a full strength."
Closer Tyler Johnson, who missed last week with a sore arm, will not make the trip to Knoxville and may not be available for the first two SEC weekends. Center fielder and leadoff man TJ Hopkins, the team's second-leading hitter, is questionable with a left quad strain.
And the Gamecocks announced Thursday that Friday night starter Clarke Schmidt has an oblique strain and may not be available. Adam Hill will start Friday night, followed by Wil Crowe on Saturday. Schmidt could be available to pitch on Sunday.
Holbrook said if Hopkins makes the trip, he will not play the outfield and likely would only be available as a DH or pinch hitter. Second baseman LT Tolbert, who jammed his wrist against Michigan State, has been resting this week and is expected to play.
Johnson, who suffered a sore forearm after back-to-back appearances in the Clemson series, will be re-evaluated next week. If he is cleared to begin throwing next week, he could be available for the third SEC series at Auburn.
"Everything is good, (but) we are going to be extremely careful with him," Holbrook said. "He is maybe a first-round draft pick and we are not going to push him back until he is 100 percent. I just couldn't sleep with myself if I were trying to nudge him back. That's not the right thing to do."
With Johnson out, that puts more pressure on late-inning relievers Josh Reagan, Colie Bowers and Reed Scott, who have combined for four wins and three saves over 43 innings so far. Holbrook is looking for other pitchers to step up this weekend. One option is redshirt freshman Cody Morris, who threw three scoreless innings in his debut against The Citadel. Morris may also be an option to start Sunday if Schmidt is not available. Left-hander John Parke, who had a save against The Citadel, and freshman Colby Lee also could contribute in the bullpen this weekend.
"Without Tyler, you need a lot of folks to step up," Holbrook said. "Reagan and Colie Bowers and Reed Scott, we feel great about, but it can't just be those three. Somebody else has got to step up and help us in the back end of the bullpen."
The Gamecocks are 11-5 after suffering some tough early-season losses to UNC-Greensboro and Kansas State and dropping two of three to Clemson. They rallied last week, beating The Citadel and Winthrop and winning two straight against Michigan State.
After two rainouts this week — Game 3 against Michigan State Sunday and at Furman Tuesday — the team has been working out at Founders Park and played a simulated scrimmage Tuesday. Holbrook feels good about where his team is.
"Going 4-0 and winning some games against some pretty good teams makes our guys feel good about themselves. But they understand it's a long season, and it's not necessarily how you start," he said. "The most important games are in front of us and the league games are of utmost importance. Our guys feel good about themselves right now, and if we get healthy, they will feel even better about themselves."
Holbrook calls SEC play "the ultimate challenge in college baseball." Though Tennessee is not typically one of the league's strongest teams, it is off to a 12-2 start and features one of the hottest players in the country in Jeff Moberg, who is hitting .475 with five home runs.
First baseman Matt Williams leads South Carolina with a .413 average with one home run and eight RBI. Alex Destino, Jacob Olson and Chris Cullen each have three home runs for the Gamecocks, while Destino leads the team with 14 RBI.
"We are fired up," Destino said. "It's a weird feeling not really playing a game yet this week and having this much time to kill. We have had really good practices and we are looking forward to hopping on the road and trying to start the SEC off well.
"I think we're playing pretty good baseball right now and there couldn't be a better time to start the SEC."
South Carolina started strong in SEC play last season, winning 10 of its first 12 league games en route to a 46-16 season and a trip to the NCAA Super Regionals. It has also gotten off to poor starts in SEC play, so Holbrook knows the importance of a good start.
"It's a tough league to play uphill against," he said. "You just try to keep your head above water as best you can and then hopefully get on a little bit of a winning streak at some point during the year and get some separation from being in the .500 range. We have done it both ways, we have gotten off to good starts and we have gotten off to bad starts … but it's no fun in this league playing uphill. It's important to try to get off to a good start."
NOTES: Friday night's game is set for 7 p.m. and will be televised by SEC Network Plus. Saturday's game is at 2 p.m. and also will be on SEC Network Plus. Sunday's 2 p.m. game will be televised by ESPNU. … South Carolina is working on rescheduling the Furman game, which was scheduled to be played in Greenville Tuesday, and scheduling another game to replace Game 3 of the Michigan State series, which was also cancelled due to cold weather. Holbrook said the program has reached out to several in-state schools, including defending national champion Coastal Carolina.