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Morris: Playmakers on offense wanted

IF SOUTH CAROLINA is to challenge for the SEC East Division championship this college football season, it badly needs to find some playmakers on offense.

It is not as if USC has no playmakers on the team. It is just that most of them play defense. Linebacker Jasper Brinkley is an All-American candidate, whose big-play abilities were so important to USC that its defense never was the same once he was injured the fourth week of last season.

Brinkley is back, along with strong safety Emmanuel Cook and Eric Norwood, an all-SEC defensive end a season ago who will move to linebacker this season. Then there is end Cliff Matthews, who defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said could make four or five big plays a game.

If cornerback Akeem Auguste steps up as Johnson expects, USC's defense has a chance to be more than formidable.

The same cannot be said of the offense, at least when assessing it following Saturday's spring game at Williams-Brice Stadium. Aside from wide receiver Kenny McKinley, USC has no other threats to take the ball to the end zone on any given play.

With no other playmakers on offense, this USC team might look different than what we've come to expect from Steve Spurrier-coached teams. It could be a team whose defense forces low-scoring games with an offense that grinds it out.

Even Spurrier struggled Saturday to name other playmakers after McKinley. He mentioned receiver Dion Lecorn, but qualified it by saying Lecorn needed to keep his weight down to retain his speed. Spurrier also mentioned receiver Matt Clements, and qualified it by saying Clements is not a great route-runner. Tight ends Jared Cook and Weslye Saunders have proven they can make big plays on occasion.

There was little or no mention of USC's running backs or quarterbacks. So, unless some unknowns emerge over the summer and into preseason practice, USC will go at SEC defenses with one big weapon on offense.

The numbers bear out that McKinley was USC's lone big playmaker a season ago. By defining a big play from scrimmage as 20 yards or more, McKinley turned in 13 such plays. For his three-year career, McKinley has 33 big plays.

McKinley has caught a pass in 33 consecutive games, dating to the fourth game of his freshman season. That means he averages about one big play a game, which in itself is impressive.

To gain perspective on McKinley, look at another team's playmakers. Clemson, for instance. Running back James Davis has matched McKinley with 33 big plays in his three-season career.

The difference between the two teams can be found once you cross McKinley and Davis off their team's respective lists. Following Davis for Clemson is wide receiver Aaron Kelly with 27 big plays, then running back C.J. Spiller with 17, receiver Tyler Grisham with 14 and receiver Jacoby Ford with 11.

For USC, the dropoff after McKinley is dramatic. Tight end Cook has 10 big plays for his two-season career, followed by running back Mike Davis with seven in three seasons and receiver Moe Brown with three.

I had neither the time nor the inclination to figure big play totals for Georgia and Florida, the teams considered championship contenders in the SEC East. But a glance at Florida's spring game confirmed that just about any Gator who touched the ball had a chance to reach the end zone.

Georgia returns superstar running back Knowshon Moreno and nine receivers who had at least one catch of 20 or more yards.

For USC to compete with Florida and Georgia, it needs to find more big-play guys to take pressure off McKinley and to cause more concern for opposing defenses.

There are several candidates, with the two most likely being the tight end tandem of Cook and Saunders. Both are big, agile and create mismatches with linebackers attempting to cover them.

Lecorn had a 28-yard pass reception for a touchdown Saturday and running back Brian Maddox sprinted 37 yards for another score. They are capable of making big plays, but they generally have not done so against SEC competition.

Beyond McKinley, though, no one really emerged out of spring practice as a big playmaker.

Of course, the one who USC most needs to step up was not on the field Saturday. Quarterback Stephen Garcia has made more big plays off the field than on, and there is no indication those numbers will flip anytime soon.