What Steve Spurrier calls “talking season” is almost finished.
“Somebody said, ‘How do you describe SEC Media Days, I said, ‘Just a lot of talking.’ And that ESPN thing they had at the studio, just a lot of talking,” South Carolina’s seventh-year head coach explained.
The talking ends Wednesday when the Gamecocks begin fall practice with a 7:30 p.m. workout that is open to the public. There are plenty of known commodities on the team; enough, in fact, that South Carolina is the favorite to repeat as SEC East champions.
However, that doesn’t mean fall camp will be dull. There are plenty of position battles to keep things interesting until the season opener Sept. 3 against East Carolina in Charlotte. Here are five competitions that will get plenty of headlines in the next month.
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As soon as Jadeveon Clowney steps on the field, all eyes will turn to No. 7. The nation’s No. 1 high school recruit will finally get to show what he can do with pads on at the collegiate level.
“We haven’t really done anything (in pads) yet,” cornerback Akeem Auguste said. “I can’t say, ‘Oh, he’s all this.’ I haven’t seen him.”
Many fans expect Clowney to be a starter immediately, but he will have to beat out Melvin Ingram for the job. Ingram led the team and was third in the SEC with nine sacks last year. He is just coming into his own as a defensive lineman after being moved from linebacker in 2009. He will not be easy to unseat. Expect Ingram, Clowney and All-SEC pick Devin Taylor to play plenty regardless of who starts.
Assistant head coach for defense Ellis Johnson said the Gamecocks will be creative with Clowney, putting him in a number of spots on the field.
“Physically, he can do anything we want him to do,” Johnson said. “The unknown is, is Jadeveon going to be 265 pounds or 295 pounds in two years? He’s already gained 15 pounds (of muscle) in four weeks.”
South Carolina must shore up a secondary that gave up 241.9 yards per game through the air last season (the third-worst performance in the SEC) and looked bad doing it.
Johnson feels good about junior All-SEC pick Stephon Gilmore at cornerback and thinks Auguste will be much more consistent at cornerback than he was as at safety last year. D.J. Swearinger seems to have found a home at strong safety, and the Gamecocks won’t try to teach him multiple positions like they did last year, Johnson said.
“D.J. has been a much, much better player when we have stabilized him and left him alone,” Johnson said. “He’s an aggressive player, plays a lot on instinct. That gets you in trouble if you’re wrong. His production has been fantastic. We just feel like we have to get him where he can turn it loose and be more confident, and that means staying more simple with him and leaving him at one place.”
For now, sophomore Jimmy Legree is the fourth starter in the secondary. His free safety spot is far from locked up, though. Brison Williams, Corey Addison or a handful of others could take it away this fall.
After fighting depth issues at linebacker through 2010, Johnson appears to have plenty of able bodies this season. He will begin fall camp with veterans Shaq Wilson and Rodney Paulk at the starting middle and weakside spots, respectively.
Wilson, a junior, led the team in tackles in 2009 but missed all but one game last year due to a hamstring injury. Paulk, a senior, had 64 tackles in 2007 but missed most of 2008 and 2009 due to knee injuries. He was slowed by the knee injury last season and sat out this spring.
It may turn out, Johnson said, that both of those players share snaps at the middle linebacker spot in a concession to their injuries and to allow other players to get playing time at weakside linebacker.
“Maybe I’ve got my two (middle linebackers) right there,” he said. “Let’s say Shaq can go 35 snaps, but he can’t go 75. I might need Rodney to stay right behind him and they split time.”
If that happens, either Quin Smith or Damario Jeffery will start at the weakside spot. Junior Reginald Bowens could get in the mix at middle linebacker if he can overcome a nagging hamstring injury.
The only real drama among the offensive position battles is up front, and there might not even be that much drama there.
Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott declined last week to commit to a starting five, but the starters at the end of spring practice – Kyle Nunn and Rokevious Watkins at tackle, A.J. Cann and Terrence Campbell at guard and T.J. Johnson at center – seemed pretty set. The only question is if newcomers like junior Kaleb Broome, redshirt freshman Cody Gibson and incoming freshman Brandon Shell can crack the rotation somewhere.
“Ask me about the 27th practice (of the fall), and I’ll have an answer for you,” Elliott said.
Nowhere on the team is their more room for improvement than at the kick returns positions.
No team in the SEC last year averaged fewer yards on the kickoff and punt returns combined than the Gamecocks, who averaged 20.4 yards on kickoff returns and 3.4 yards on punt returns.
Newcomers Damiere Byrd, an incoming freshman, and Bruce Ellington, who is joining the team after playing basketball last season, will get the first shot at changing those fortunes. Ace Sanders and Gilmore handled the punt returns last year and both will get a look again this fall. Sanders averaged just 1.8 yards per return last year, so it’s hard to think he’s the answer.
Last year’s top two kickoff return men, Bryce Sherman and Chris Culliver, are gone, leaving that spot wide open. Swearinger, who averaged 21.8 yards on four returns last year, could get a shot again this season.