South Carolina's football team is looking to continue the momentum built by the program-best ranking of fourth to end the 2013 season after its spring practice sessions.
The Black defeated the Garnet, 28-10, in the annual spring game, but more importantly than the final score a few questions were answered in the spring. The most important aspect of spring practice - keeping the players healthy - was accomplished for the most part, however tight end Rory Anderson suffered a torn triceps and running back Shon Carson injured his shoulder in the spring game. The extent of the injuries and timetable for these players' return is unknown as of yet.
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier noted that the spring game and practices don't always reveal much because young players get experience while more established players may get more rest, but he did say that many of the players played well. When asked how he felt about the team after the spring, Spurrier gave his traditional answer to downplay expectations heading into the summer.
"I think we have a chance to be a good team. We have a lot of guys back on offense and not as many on defense. We've got to go play, got to prepare and play to see if we're any good or not, but we do return a lot of players," Spurrier said after the spring game. "We've got a lot of players who have been here quite awhile, but that means only that. It doesn't mean we can beat a lot of teams or not. We could go bad or we could go good. We'll just have to wait and see."
Everyone knew coming into the spring that fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson would be the starting quarterback in the fall after Spurrier announced it in January and he looked sharp all spring. Thompson played sparingly in the spring game, but did complete 8-of-11 passes for 129 yards and the special touchdown pass to women's basketball head coach Dawn Staley. What was unknown was who will be the second-string quarterback and that question remains unanswered after the spring. Each of the three other quarterbacks, Connor Mitch, Brendan Nosovitch and Perry Orth, spent time this spring as the favorite for the backup position, but Mitch may have made the strongest case during the spring game, going 7-of-10 for 108 yards while Orth went 6-of-10 with a touchdown and an interception. Spurrier did not make any declaration on which player would be the backup quarterback, but rather extended the competition.
"Number two, well we'll let them go through the summer before we make up any decisions and we may not make any decisions until it's time for somebody to go in besides Dylan … Connor Mitch made some good plays and Perry Orth. Brendan, his ball flutters a little bit … but Perry and Connor Mitch had a good high percentage," Spurrier commented.
A statement was made from the backfield during spring practice that the Gamecocks have plenty of depth and talent at the tailback position. Starter Mike Davis joked his spring was "relaxing" as he did not get many reps to help continue recovering from chronic injuries that slowed him down the stretch in 2013. Thompson said that though Davis did not practice as much he worked extremely hard in the weight room and became a smarter player this spring. Behind Davis will be Brandon Wilds, David Williams and Carson, who is expected to be healthy heading into the fall. Spurrier noted that all of these backs figure in the offensive scheme for 2014.
"Mike is important, so is Brandon Wilds. Unfortunately Shon Carson cracked his shoulder … but Mike is ready to have a big year, Brandon is ready and Shon should be back. David Williams had some nice runs … overall David is going to be a good back," Spurrier remarked.
The Gamecock receiving corps looked to be another group with depth and talent this spring as many are looking for the emergence of Shaq Roland. There is also great experience returning in Damiere Byrd, who should be 100 percent for the fall, and Nick Jones. The explosiveness of Joe Morrison Offensive Player of the Spring Pharoh Cooper will be utilized all over the field again this fall with more looks likely going to Shamier Jeffery and K.J. Brent as well.
"At wideout, you've got whatever name you want to pick of guys that have made big plays in big moments. It's my job to get them the ball in space and let them do their thing. I think we're doing a pretty good job of that," Thompson said.
South Carolina's offensive line has been lauded all spring and returns four of five starters. A.J. Cann, one of the team captains from last fall, will be in the mix for preseason All-SEC and All-American honors at left guard while both tackles return as well in Corey Robinson (left) and Brandon Shell (right). The center position has a battle going on for playing time since both Clayton Stadnik and Cody Waldrop saw time there last season. Mike Matulis - a former Freshman All-American - has moved inside and looks to have taken the lead for the right guard spot. There is plenty of size and depth backing up these players and the offensive line will likely be one of the strengths of the team. Both Davis and Thompson spoke highly of them after the spring game.
"I'll tell you who is dangerous and the biggest weapon on offense, it's our offensive line," Davis commented. "Everybody is over 300 pounds. A.J. Cann, Brandon Shell, Corey Robinson, Cody Waldrop, Mike Matlius and all those guys, they've done a great job up front. They've given us the ability to do the things we can, so if you want to talk about guys who have been putting in the hard work, I'd say the offensive line."
The talk of the spring on the defensive side of the ball was experimentation with a 3-4 defensive lineup. This change allows defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to utilize the stable of talented linebackers to full advantage while compensating for some of the lost positions on the defensive line and in the secondary.
"I think we got better this spring. I feel like we concentrated on the 4-2-5 and worked on the 3-4. We really liked what we did out of the 3-4, so I think that will be a major part of our scheme next season. We feel like we had a lot of positions get better," Ward said. "I think we’ll have a chance to be as good, if not better than we were last year.
"I think we’ve got guys that understand that they’re not going to count on (Jadeveon) Clowney or Kelcy Quarles to make a play. I think we’ll have 11 guys that we can put on the field and play together as a unit. When you get 11 guys that can play as a unit, I think you’ll be okay," Ward continued.
The Gamecock linebackers are headlined by Skai Moore, who led the team in tackles and interceptions as a freshman last fall. Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman will likely share time in the middle with Jonathan Walton moving over to the weak side to back up Moore. The spurs are going to be led by Sharrod Golightly in his senior year, but there is plenty of depth behind him and all that talent leads the Gamecocks to want to utilize the 3-4.
"They should be really ready to play next year … we expect those linebackers to continue improving as they did toward the end of last year. They should all be pretty good," Spurrier said.
The defensive line has some question marks, losing a pair of All-Americans and another senior, but the defensive ends have plenty of speed with the likes of Darius English and Cedrick Cooper on the edge. Gerald Dixon, Jr. and Mason Harris also had strong springs with Dixon, Jr. being likely the most technically sound end. The tackles will be led by returners JT Surratt and Phillip Dukes, but the addition of junior college transfer Abu Lamin has made an impact as well. Lamin was chose the Rex Enright Defensive Player of the Spring and Ward said he could make an impact early.
"He definitely can help us. He's very athletic, he's God-gifted strong and he's got a great punch. I think he'll do a good job giving us a push inside," Ward noted.
The defensive backfield is still stacked at safety, with Chaz Elder, TJ Gurley, Kadetrix Marcus and Chris Moody allowing Brison Williams to move to cornerback, a position of need. Ward said Jamari Smith has gotten better after making the transition back to defensive back from playing running back last fall. Ward also said that he is happy that the NCAA rules have changed allowing the coaches time with the new players with some highly-recruited cornerbacks coming to campus this summer.
"We're definitely going to try and see if the five guys we signed can play. We know we've got Brison if we have to start him, but we're going to see if we can give those five freshman a chance," Ward said.
The Jim Carlen Special Teams Player of the Spring award went to kicker Elliott Fry who Spurrier likes a lot after proving himself capable of handling pressure last fall. Every kick attempt was handled well by the snapper and holder with no problems as well. Patrick Fish punted twice for 76 yards in the spring game and Tyler Hull booted one punt for 40 yards.
While the spring was successful, the team will look to put in the work in the offseason needed to continue the success the program has seen over the past three seasons. Spurrier's goal of winning an SEC Championship is still out there and could be achieved this year if everything comes together, but he knows that spring practice will only tell you so much.
"When the real game starts now it becomes a little different than what we've been doing. I think our guys are smart enough to know that and we'll get a little more fired up when the opponents come into Williams-Brice Stadium starting August 28," Spurrier commented.