This preview will be a three part series focusing on offense, defense, and schedule analysis in turn. Here, first is the offensive preview.
You can’t talk about South Carolina’s offense without talking about Steve Spurrier. The hallmark of previous Spurrier offenses at Florida and Duke has always been scoring, and lots of it. Spurrier directed offenses routinely posted 50+ points in an outing and have been known to put up excess of 60 and even 70.
That being said, little of this kind of offensive genius was seen last season. The offense averaged 23.7 points a game, hardly evidence of an offensive juggernaut. This is not to say that Spurrier has lost something; rather, much of the blame for such a low output can be explained by players learning a completely new offense. With another spring and summer practice under their belt expectations are rightfully higher for the coming season. That the Spurrier offense can be wildly successful has been repeatedly proven with different players and different teams. Assume that Spurrier will have a winning game plan every time out. The success of the offense will depend largely on the performance of the players themselves, predicated on their ability assimilate, understand, and execute what they are being taught.
As a whole the receiving corps should be a strength of the gamecock offense. Everyone knows about Sidney Rice. The redshirt sophomore caught 70 passes for 1143 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. He is pre-season all-everything. The only thing that can derail Sidney is Sidney. Often caught up in the hype, tremendous freshman seasons are followed up by sophomore slumps. That being said, Sidney has worked hard in the off-season and appears to be just as good as last year if summer practice is any indication. Expect Sidney to draw more double teams, more safeties over the top and more bump and run coverages. Though he has the ability to overcome the increased attention, numbers like last year will be difficult to come by.
Overshadowed by Rice is the rest of a very capable receiving corps. Number 11 Kenny McKinley has proven to be an able receiver and a legitimate deep threat. After starting only six games, McKinley caught 25 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown. A high school quarterback, McKinley combines good athletic ability with an innate knowledge of how to get open. His continued improvement on last year’s performance will make ignoring him in favor of double coverage of Rice, a dangerous proposition.
South Carolina fans will see familiar number 10 on the field, but it will not be the miraculous return of Ko Simpson. Wearing the number this year is Noah Whiteside, who is rumored to have lost number one for his off-season work ethic. Whiteside has been an enigma to many since his arrival in Columbia. He appears to have all of the tools necessary to be a big-time receiver, but never seems to become a consistent playmaker despite flashes of excellence. Improvement by Whiteside could make the receiving corps incredibly potent against opposing defenses.
Tight ends Andy Boyd and Jared Cook should provide a useful outlet for gamecock quarterbacks. Boyd, the more experienced of the two, is a solid blocker who has been hampered by injuries. Jared Cook appears to be the more athletically gifted. After an impressive spring game, Cook may challenge for time early and could be another useful weapon for the offense.
Other receivers of note include O.J. Murdock and Mike West. Murdock, the highly touted recruit, is a fast and talented receiver. He may work his way into the receiving rotation and could ably fill in should an injury cut down any of the starters. Mike West, the converted linebacker, is one of the fastest players on the team. That being said, early indications from practice suggest that he has been trouble with, well, catching. Think of stonehands from necessary roughness.
Running back is a deep position for the Gamecocks. After an impressive freshman season Mike Davis returns as the projected starter. His freshman season in which he rushed for 666 yards and 5 touchdowns on 146 carries was most notable for his continued improvement. Davis appeared to become a smarter running back each game. Taking what was given to him rather than trying to create something that wasn’t there helped Davis and the offense improve. If he continues to improve Davis will be something special in the near future.
Splitting time with Davis will be Cory Boyd. Returning from a 1 year suspension Boyd appears to be picking up where he left off. An explosive back, Boyd can create match up problems for any defense because he is such an able receiver. His presence gives the gamecocks a potent one-two punch.
Sophomore Bobby Wallace, a small, speedy back, waits in the wings to prove himself. Moderately successful by freshman standards, Wallace’s speed could be his ticket to the field. It will still be difficult for him to find playing time behind Boyd and Davis.
The key to a successful Spurrier offense has always been a capable quarterback who can quickly and correctly read defenses and audible. The quarterback doesn’t have to be the most athletically gifted or a Heisman trophy contender (though they often are because of the gaudy numbers the offense produces). Really what is needed is a competent passer who minimizes mistakes (Think Phil Petty).
Blake Mitchell returns as the likely starter. A gifted quarterback from LaGrange, Georgia, Mitchell appeared to be growing into the Spurrier quarterback mold at the end of last season. That being said, late in the season he often zeroed in on Sidney Rice instead of properly using his progression. Given Rice’s ability, the tendency was understandable; however, if Mitchell is to emerge as a leading quarterback in the conference (and de facto in the nation) he must continue to learn to use his progression and avoid forcing passes – no matter how great the receiver.
Mitchell is technically a solid quarterback. His release is not unbelievably fast, but it is adequate. In early practices he continues to exhibit ‘happy feet’ – a tendency to shuffle one’s feet after having set up for the pass. He has relatively good touch when it is needed and doesn’t have many problems with the ball floating on him when it shouldn’t. If he can continue to fine tune his skills, Mitchell should lead the offense to high scoring outputs.
The back-ups are for the most part capable quarterbacks who will have to wait their turns. Freshman Chris Smelley has begun to impress in fall practices. He appears to be a remarkably polished quarterback for such a young age. He will certainly compete for the back-up job. His biggest weakness is unfamiliarity with the offense. Tommy Beecher and Cade Thompson will also be in the mix.
Offensive Line is by far the most difficult area to forecast. There are no reliable statistics to show how an individual lineman is doing – grading out is an arbitrary and misleading measure. A unit can be judged based on rushing yards gained, sacks allowed, etc. If that was the factor in deciding how this year’s line would do, the news would be bad. Last year too many sacks were given up, too little time was given to the quarterbacks, and too few holes were opened for far too short a time.
Those things aside, there is reason to be optimistic about the line. In the off season they were the hardest working position according to all reports. Recent recruiting has brought in much larger (and hopefully stronger) players to pave the way. Those players that are here have another year of experience, for better or for worse.
Experience, size and strength are really the only reliable factors to use in talking about how a line will perform. Those factors could mean anything, or they could mean nothing. For what it’s worth the line has enough experience and size. If they are as dedicated as summer reports lead most to believe, they could improve on last year’s performance.
Do not confuse the unreliability of predicting an offensive line’s performance with the importance of the line. As talented as the skill positions are (and they are quite talented) they will each and everyone be rendered moot without adequate play from the line. The line need not be great or even blow people off the ball, but they must create some holes and give some protection if this offense is to succeed.
X-Factor Syvelle Newton
Syvelle Newton returns from a torn Achilles tendon injury. Reports indicate he has recovered well and will be ready to go at the start of the season. Where he will play is a bigger question. He is suited to play as both a running back and receiver. Both of those positions are strengths of team, and because of that there has been talk of moving Syvelle to safety. That talk appears to have dissipated.
Syvelle is a capable ball catcher and elusive running back. In all likelihood he will see time at both positions. Should any injuries occur (and they most always do) he can fill in. Look for him to be utilized in special situations, in special plays or as part of the receiving rotation. Wherever he is, he will be an asset to the position and an impact player on the field.