South Carolina is less than two weeks from its opening game of the 2011 season.
The heavy work of fall camp has been done and only a few finishing touches need to be added before the No. 12 Gamecocks’ roster is set. Here are five things we’ve learned since practice began on Aug. 3.
Expectations are unprecedented
South Carolina fans are perpetually optimistic about their team. This year, they have plenty of company. The Gamecocks are ranked No. 12 by the Associated Press and the coaches, their highest ranking of the preseason. Want Las Vegas’ opinion? South Carolina already is favored to beat Georgia, Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson by one oddsmaker. South Carolina was picked to repeat as SEC East champions by the conference’s media, and some players have not been shy about throwing around the words “national championship.”
The offensive line is set
The Gamecocks have the same first five on the offensive line they had coming out of spring practice – Rokevious Watkins and Kyle Nunn at tackle, A.J. Cann and Terrence Campbell at guard and T.J. Johnson at center. There was the question of whether talented freshman tackle Brandon Shell might find a spot, but it became clear early that wouldn’t happen when Shell missed more than a week of practice due to a shoulder injury. Shell and fellow freshman tackle Mike Matulis look good enough that they might both play this season, but neither will start. As it stands, South Carolina will roll out one of the league’s most experienced offensive lines. Cann is the only fresh face in the bunch. The Bamberg native redshirted last year. His four linemates have started a combined 70 collegiate games.
Jadeveon Clowney won’t be a bust
However, he also probably won’t be a starter, at least right away. Clowney had a lot to live up to when he stepped on campus as the nation’s No. 1 ranked high school player. He has not been overwhelmed by the hype. In fact, he was the most active defender in the team’s last scrimmage, which featured non-starters. The segment of the fan base that expected Clowney to roll right into the starting lineup probably will be disappointed on Sept. 3. Assistant head coach for defense Ellis Johnson said recently that Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram are the defensive end starters and there’s “no question” about it. Head coach Steve Spurrier left the door open for Clowney to sneak into the starting lineup, but there appears no reason to rush him given how well Taylor and Ingram have played this fall.
Other freshmen will contribute, but probably not many
One of the most highly ranked Gamecock recruiting classes in recent memory will have an impact on the field this year, but that impact probably will be best measured in quality rather than quantity. South Carolina’s experience and depth means it doesn’t need many newcomers to play right away, but a few will anyway. Wide receiver Damiere Byrd is the most notable name on the list other than Clowney. Byrd is the fastest player on the team and gives South Carolina a threat defenses have to monitor. Freshman wide receiver K.J. Brent also is making a strong push for significant playing time.
Shaq Wilson is healthy
Or, at least, he’s healthy enough. The hamstring injury that kept Wilson out all but one game last year hasn’t slowed the junior linebacker much this fall. Wilson’s return to the starting lineup is bigger than just his 5-foot-11, 233-pound frame. South Carolina never could match defensive continuity it has with him on the field when he was gone last year. Wilson might end up sharing time at middle linebacker with another previously injury veteran, Rodney Paulk. Whether Paulk starts on the weakside or teams with Wilson in the middle, it’ll be a boon for a Gamecock defense that needed better communication last year.