Seniors might be hard to find among South Carolina’s pass-catching corps this season, but you’re not going to find receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. running up any white flags.
He looks at his returning group of players, and while he notes the inexperience, he also points to the promise.
“We’re still a pretty young group,” Spurrier Jr. said. “It’ll be interesting to see what our mix of guys is this year and how we do.”
Two-sport standout Bruce Ellington, who also serves as the starting point guard on the basketball team, leads the wideouts. After taking the 2010 football season off, he found his gridiron groove last season with 40 catches for 600 yards and seven touchdowns, including the 32-yard game-winning reception in the Outback Bowl.
He provides the group with a solid starting point.
“Bruce Ellington’s a proven player, and he gets better every year he plays. I expect a lot of great things from him,” Spurrier Jr. said.
Vying for the other two starting jobs at wide receiver are Damiere Byrd, Shaq Roland and Nick Jones. Byrd supplies plenty of downfield speed, Jones showed flashes of excellence in the final three games last season, and Roland was the state’s top high school player two years ago. While their numbers weren’t huge, they’ll get far more opportunity to make an impact this season with 2012 top pass-catcher Ace Sanders playing in the NFL.
“Damiere Byrd’s a capable player, and he needs to have a big year. Shaq Roland’s another guy that’s got the potential to really be a good player. But he’s still very unproven,” Spurrier Jr. said. “Nick Jones is a guy who, when he’s played, has played very well for us. We certainly expect that to continue.”
USC head coach Steve Spurrier is confident the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Roland, who caught five passes last season for 80 yards, can develop into a big-play threat after a freshman campaign in which he struggled.
“He didn’t do a whole lot last year. He didn’t get that much opportunity. But he’s growing up, and he’s ready to become a real ballplayer,” Spurrier said.
Other players battling for larger roles in camp that begins Friday night include sophomores K.J. Brent and Shamier Jeffery, and redshirt freshmen Kwinton Smith and Jody Fuller.
“One or two of those guys need to show up and say they can go play receiver this year,” said Spurrier Jr., who added the best four to five will get the bulk of the playing time no matter where he has them slotted right now.
Spurrier said he could end up with a group of small receivers if Ellington, Byrd and Jones — all 5-foot-9 or under — play the best or use some other mix, if taller wideouts such as Brent and Smith — both 6-4 — bust out. He’s ready to go with whatever combination works.
“Ace and Bruce were certainly a little different than (taller receivers like) Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery,” Spurrier Jr. said. “You’ve got to make those adjustments as you go. We did a decent job with that last year.”
The passing game should get a huge boost from a couple of tall targets at tight end — 6-5 junior Rory Anderson, who hauled in 14 passes for 271 yards and five touchdowns last season, and 6-6 sophomore Jerell Adams, who showed big-play potential.
“We have two excellent tight ends that are great players. They have a chance to have a huge impact on this offense,” Spurrier Jr. said.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that experienced quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson are throwing the passes. Their abilities should make this group of receivers better.
“That certainly helps. That won’t be a weakness of our team at all,” Spurrier Jr. said. “Both those guys are great players.”
Receiver Ace Sanders and tight end Justice Cunningham have departed, and they take a lot of big-play and prime-time experience with them.
Junior Bruce Ellington leads the returning wideouts, with juniors Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones, sophomores Shaq Roland, K.J. Brent, and Shamier Jeffery, and redshirt freshmen Kwinton Smith and Jody Fuller also back. At tight end, junior Rory Anderson and sophomores Jerell Adams and Drew Owens return.
The speedy Byrd, who averaged 26 yards per catch last season, and the potentially great Roland, whose freshman season can best be described as a learning experience, are vying at one of the wideout spots. Steve Spurrier Jr. will find a way to get them on the field together. Roland could break out if he can merge the knowledge of what he needs to do with his play-making ability.
Will the quarterbacks consistently find the dynamic tight-end duo of Anderson and Adams? The pair combined to catch 18 passes for 361 yards — an average of 20.1 yards per catch — and six touchdowns last season.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce. If you hear that name called out frequently by the Williams-Brice Stadium crowd, then you know Ellington is having a big game and a big year. In his second season with the football team a year ago, the two-sport standout found his niche as a go-to wideout.