These are heady times for the South Carolina football program.
The Gamecocks won 11 games for the first time in their history last season, and that came on the heels of an SEC East Division title in 2010, the first title of any kind for South Carolina since it had won the ACC crown in 1969.
In addition, last season was just the second time in school history the Gamecocks won at least 10 games, and their 20 victories in the past two seasons is the school's best two-year mark.
QB Connor Shaw isn't an overly gifted passer but he is steady.
South Carolina at-a-glance
Coach: Steve Spurrier (8th season)
The Gamecocks will head into this season as one of the favorites in the East, assuming they can adequately rebuild their secondary and offensive line this spring.
Seven starters are back on offense, but just two return on the line. And the secondary lost both corners as well as Anthony Allen, who played the "spur" position, a hybrid safety/outside linebacker spot.
Perhaps the biggest positive for South Carolina is the makings of a dominant defensive line with Es Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor and T Kelcy Quarles. The linebackers are rather nondescript, but should make a good number of tackles with those linemen occupying opposing blockers.
Another positive is that for the first time since he was at Florida, coach Steve Spurrier goes into a season comfortable with his starting quarterback. Connor Shaw isn't an overly gifted passer, but he is steady, something predecessor Stephen Garcia was not. In addition, Shaw's running ability adds a different element to Spurrier's offense.
Star TB Marcus Lattimore will miss spring drills while recovering from a knee injury. But Brandon Wilds did a nice job late last season as Lattimore's replacement, and Lattimore's absence will help the Gamecocks develop even more depth at the position.
One more thing to watch this spring is who emerges as the go-to receiver in the wake of Alshon Jeffery's early departure to the NFL. The leading returning receiver is Ace Sanders, who is listed at 5 feet 7 and caught just 29 passes for two TDs last season.
The biggest problem: Depth at quarterback. Connor Shaw cemented his status as South Carolina's No. 1 quarterback by winning seven of the last eight games in 2011 after replacing Stephen Garcia as the starter. But behind him are several unproven players, so coach Steve Spurrier and quarterback coach G.A. Mangus must spend the next month trying to find a capable backup. Will it be redshirt freshman Tannor McEvoy? How about veterans Andrew Clifford and Dylan Thompson? If none of those quarterbacks impress the coaches in the spring, the door will be open for true freshman Brendan Nosovitch when he joins the program in July.
On the spot: C T.J. Johnson. He will be a senior this season, has started every game in which he has appeared and could approach the school's games-played record before the 2012 season is complete. But the departure of three linemen (Terrence Campbell, Kyle Nunn and Rokevious Watkins) who started last season and little experienced depth means the line will be extremely young this season. As many as two or three freshmen could earn starting roles. If so, it will be up to Johnson and offensive line coach Shawn Elliott to keep things patched together. Elliott is counting on Johnson to serve as a de facto coach on the field.
On the verge: DT Kelcy Quarles. Even though he is overshadowed by DE Jadeveon Clowney, Quarles is a good player in his own right. Quarles began his freshman season in 2011 as a backup, but fought his way to the top of the depth chart by the midway point of the season and remained there the rest of the way, finishing with 28 tackles. Together with Clowney and E Devin Taylor, Quarles should form the nucleus of one of the top defensive lines in the SEC.
General overview: Some of the spring practice talk will focus as much on who is not participating as who is actually on the field. All-SEC RB Marcus Lattimore is still recovering from torn knee ligaments suffered last October and won't take the field. Neither will FS D.J. Swearinger, who opted to return for his senior season rather than joining CB Stephen Gilmore and WR Alshon Jeffery in declaring for the NFL draft. Swearinger endured a stress fracture in his foot in the final month of the season and recently had surgery. Two potential starters along the offensive front – sophomore T Mike Matulis and freshman T Brock Stadnik – also had surgery and will miss the spring. As a result, the depth on the offensive line will be depleted. In addition, new special teams coach Joe Robinson must find a new kicker and a new punter.
For in-depth coverage of South Carolina athletics, go to GamecockCentral.com
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