USC football: spring practice preview

jperson@thestate.comMarch 3, 2010 

University of South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier leads his team as they work out at the Gamecocks Proving Ground in Columbia, SC on Thursday, August 13, 2009.

ERIK CAMPOS/ECAMPOS@THESTATE.COM — Erik Campos

Steve Spurrier can stop apologizing.

The South Carolina football coach, who said he was sorry several times this offseason for his team's showing in a 20-7 loss to Connecticut in the Papajohns.com Bowl, will turn the page on the 2009 season Thursday when the Gamecocks begin spring practice.

With 15 starters returning and question marks surrounding several of the SEC East's top teams, many analysts think 2010 could be Spurrier's best chance to contend for a conference title.

While the other East teams sort out their quarterback situations, USC is looking for a backup - one of five spring questions The State examines.

WHO WILL EMERGE AS THE NO. 2 QUARTERBACK?

The Gamecocks are set at the starting spot with Stephen Garcia, who was the second-leading passer in the conference last year behind Arkansas' Ryan Mallett. But the situation behind Garcia is murkier. Reid McCollum left the program in January, leaving Spurrier without a backup who has attempted a pass in a game. January enrollee Connor Shaw, the son of a high school coach in Georgia, has a great chance to step into the No. 2 role as a freshman.

CAN THE OFFENSIVE LINE GET BETTER?

The Gamecocks' front five was headed in the right direction under Eric Wolford, who left in December to become Youngstown State's coach. After a poor outing in the bowl game, the line will look for leadership from former Appalachian State assistant Shawn Elliott, the Gamecocks' third line coach in as many seasons. While some coaches plan to rest established starters this spring, do not expect such an approach from Elliott. The Camden native vowed when he was hired that nobody would outwork his players.

IS THIS THE LAST CHANCE FOR A RETURNING TAILBACK TO STAKE HIS CLAIM?

If not the last, then certainly the best chance. Marcus Lattimore, the Parade All-American rated the country's top tailback prospect by Rivals, arrives in June. And while the former Byrnes star said USC coaches did not promise him anything, the 5-11, 215-pound Lattimore will be given an opportunity to win the job. Brian Maddox, Kenny Miles or Jarvis Giles could give Spurrier something to think about with an impressive spring. Maddox remains the team's best blocking back, while Miles and Giles each averaged at least 5.3 yards a carry last season.

ARE THERE SIGNIFICANT POSITION CHANGES?

Free safety Chris Culliver and cornerback Akeem Auguste are trading places. Culliver won't make the move until the fall as he recovers from his second shoulder surgery in nine months. Culliver can better protect his shoulder at corner, while Auguste should be a fearless hitter at safety despite his small frame. T.J. Johnson, who started every game at guard in '09, will begin the spring at center, while Spurrier wants to give fullback Pat DiMarco snaps at tight end to get him more involved. Shaq Wilson will shift from middle linebacker to Eric Norwood's former weakside spot. And coaches are tweaking the receiving roles to get Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery on the field at the same time.

WITH SO MANY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS SIDELINED, WHICH YOUNG PLAYERS HAVE A CHANCE TO STEP UP?

The Gamecocks could put together a good defense with their injured players. Besides Culliver, end Cliff Matthews (shoulder), tackle Travian Robertson (knee) and linebacker Rodney Paulk (knee) also will be watching. So will veteran tackle Ladi Ajiboye (to avoid injury risk) and a pair of backups - linebacker Reggie Bowens (shoulder) and lineman Ronald Byrd (knee). That will create openings for untested players such as tackle Kenny Davis, linebacker Toquavius Gilchrist and end Chaz Sutton. If they don't produce, they will take a step back on the depth chart when the starters return in the fall.

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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