Wary USC limps into spring game

With few healthy bodies left, Gamecocks hope to have injury-free exhibition

semerson@thestate.comApril 10, 2010 

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USC assistant head coach Ellis Johnson walks out onto the field for practice Friday afternoon.

RICH GLICKSTEIN/RGLICKSTEIN@THESTATE.COM

South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier was asked this week what the format would be for today's spring game.

"We are going to play tackle, we've decided on that," Spurrier said.

He was only half joking.

The Gamecocks are in such a hurry to get through today without sustaining more injuries, it's almost a surprise they are holding the game. As it is, they will play two 12-minute quarters then a second half with a running clock.

It befits spring practice, which has been in somewhat of a holding pattern, with few position battles and numerous key players sitting out. Coaches are upfront that the main goal today is to be injury-free, rather than to find out more about their team.

"We're going to get all those (injured) guys back; it's not a dire situation," said Ellis Johnson, the assistant head coach for defense. "But we certainly don't need to get a couple kids hurt out there Saturday trying to entertain people."

It's called the Garnet and Black game, but considering the number of players that have been in noncontact jerseys this spring, it might as well be called the Garnet and Black and Yellow game.

The defense has been particularly hard hit. Cliff Matthews, the best defensive player and a co-captain, hasn't participated. Ditto for three other key starters: defensive tackle Travian Robertson, cornerback Chris Culliver and middle linebacker Rodney Paulk. Another starter, defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye, was hurt early in the spring.

As of Wednesday, Johnson was debating whether to play another starter, outside linebacker Shaq Wilson. The player isn't hurt, but Johnson wants to be cautious.

"Defensively, we've already got a lot of guys over on the sideline, and we certainly don't want to see any more over there," Johnson said.

Spurrier has tried to create some drama at quarterback, despite Stephen Garcia having started all 13 games last season and the two top backups having left the team. Connor Shaw, a freshman who enrolled in the spring, has received the second-most snaps in practice behind Garcia.

Spurrier preferred to look to the future rather than focus on how the quarterbacks perform in the spring game.

"Hopefully, Stephen Garcia will have a good summer of commitment to learning how to play quarterback for the Gamecocks. If he does that, he's got a chance to be pretty good," Spurrier said. "Connor Shaw will be here, and he will make a commitment to try to be the best he can be. So we just have to wait and see how it all works out going into August practice."

Then there are the tailbacks; injuries at the position will limit the team to two scholarship tailbacks today: Brian Maddox and Kenny Miles. A pecking order might have been established during the spring, but everyone wants to see how mega-recruit Marcus Lattimore looks when he arrives in the summer.

"He's going to be ready. He's going to have a lot to learn, though," senior Brian Maddox said of the former Byrnes High standout, considered by some analysts to be the top running back recruit in the nation. "That's going to be part of my role, to teach him and get him ready."

Even the offensive line, a constant concern, is in wait-and-see mode. New line coach Shawn Elliott is getting to know his players and has only 10 scholarship players. He wants to name the starters for the purpose of continuity, but they will not be known until August.

"The spring is just for everyone to come out here and work on their individual things that they need to work on," tackle Hutch Eckerson said. "It's not really ones and twos (on the depth chart) right now; it's really on everybody working on what they need to do to get better for this fall."

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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