South Carolina takes to the practice fields this weekend to start preparation for the 2013 season. The GoGamecocks staff selected 15 players we're watching during the team's open practices. (Get live updates here starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday)
Josh Kendall’s five
Connor Shaw – The last game in which the senior quarterback was healthy, he threw for 356 yards, rushed for 33 and scored four touchdowns against Tennessee. He’s healthy again after surgery and rest for his left foot. He could be one of the Gamecocks’ and SEC’s surprise players this year.
Cedrick Cooper – We have heard since Cooper arrived two years ago that he could be special. We were robbed of the chance to see the 6-foot-2, 213-pounder this spring because of a knee injury suffered in bowl practice. He’s now healthy, and the Gamecocks will be much better if Cooper can become a good or better weakside linebacker.
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T.J. Gurley – Another player coming off a knee injury, Gurley could push Kadetrix Marcus at strong safety. Last fall camp, Steve Spurrier kicked Gurley off the field briefly for an overaggressive hit in a practice that wasn’t supposed to be full speed. Defensive coaches love that stuff.
Chaz Elder – My second backup safety and fourth Georgia native on this list, Elder is Brison Williams’ backup at free safety. I’m a believer that safety is No. 2 only to defensive tackle in terms of SEC defensive importance. The more South Carolina has the better.
Gerald Dixon Jr. – Kelcy Quarles is locked in at one defensive tackle. Dixon Jr. is pushing J.T. Surratt on the other side. If he can beat out the more veteran Surratt, it will be a good indication of his talent and potential.
David Cloninger’s five
Landon Ard – Listed as the preseason place-kicker and kickoff man on the depth chart, Ard is trying to replace Adam Yates as the Gamecocks’ top specialist. He’s never kicked a field goal in a game, but does have two PATs.
Shaq Roland – Will the light come on for the ultra-talented former Mr. Football? USC needs a stretch-the-field receiver and Roland could be it – if he can run the right routes, and catch the ball.
Cody Waldrop – It won’t be easy to replace the veteran T.J. Johnson, and to be the new guy in an experienced offensive line. But Shawn Elliott named Waldrop the starting center for a reason. If he shotguns the first snap into the Bluff Road hedges, will the competition re-open?
Sharrod Golightly – The spur position has been a game-changer for USC, and has sent the past three spurs (Darian Stewart, Antonio Allen, DeVonte Holloman) to the NFL. Can Golightly fill that void? Lorenzo Ward has said that it could be a rotation between Golightly and Jordan Diggs, but Golightly is listed as the starter right now.
Kelvin Rainey – The former tight end has been moved to linebacker and is listed at third string, but the two players ahead of him are Cedrick Cooper and Marcquis Roberts. Each is coming off injuries, and while they should be 100 percent, Rainey will be the beneficiary if they’re not.
Dwayne McLemore’s five
Brandon Wilds – Wilds played beyond expectations two years ago as a true freshman, with more than 100 yards each against Tennessee, Florida and The Citadel. He faded down the stretch in 2011 and then took a rare redshirt season as a sophomore with a severely sprained ankle. Can he beat out Mike Davis for the starting tailback role?
David Johnson – Listed at 268 pounds, he’s the heaviest of all of South Carolina’s linebackers. All four freshman linebackers have a goal to start this season, but Johnson’s size might make him the most SEC-ready. He’s known for having a high motor. It remains to seen if offseason knee surgery slows him down.
Nick Jones – Jones finished strong in 2012 and as a junior is now a veteran among the Gamecocks’ receiving corps. Three of Jones’ five career starts came at the end of 2012, and he had huge catches against Clemson and Michigan. Jones should be poised for the most opportunities of his career.
Pharoh Cooper – A quarterback, defensive back, receiver and punt returner in high school, the dynamic Cooper wants to start as a freshman – at punt return. He returned three punts for touchdowns as a senior in high school – from 82, 67 and 37 yards. Cooper has been impressive in summer workouts and will have to unseat the veteran Vic Hampton for the role.
Rico McWilliams – McWilliams was lost for the season with a knee injury just as preseason camp started last year. He’s back and healthy and will compete with Ronnie Martin as Jimmy Legree’s main backup. Grady Brown said he is excited about the potential of McWilliams, who was regarded as a physical playmaker in high school in Lovejoy, Ga.