NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT
The Gamecocks lost only a couple of starters on each side of the ball and return all of their primary offensive play-makers. USC’s chief SEC East rivals are breaking in new quarterbacks — and Florida suffered major personnel losses when five players left early for the NFL draft.
Most experts believe Gators quarterback John Brantley will perform well in his first season as a starter. But there is no way Brantley — or anyone — can match Tim Tebow’s competitiveness and bull-like running ability.
Making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game remains a huge challenge. But the window of opportunity for Steve Spurrier appears to be open at least a crack.
BIG GARNET LINE
No, not the offensive line, but the line of trees the Gamecocks will roll out in their receiving rotation. USC boasts a handful of receivers who stand at least 6-foot-4, including its top three returning wideouts — Alshon Jeffery, Tori Gurley, Jason Barnes —.
The Alabama game proved it’s not enough to lob jump balls to the big guys. The Gamecocks also need a shifty, Kenny McKinley-type slot receiver, and believe they have one in freshman Ace Sanders.
TWO-DEEP IN THE SECONDARY
Nothing illustrates the Gamecocks’ depth in the secondary better than the move of Chris Culliver, a two-year starter at free safety, to cornerback. Culliver has the speed to be a lock-down corner, and his surgically repaired shoulder will take fewer hits than at safety.
Akeem Auguste, who moves from corner to safety, looks like a better fit playing center field.
GAME-BREAKER IN THE BACKFIELD
OK, so you might have heard this last season when Jarvis Giles arrived. But Marcus Lattimore seems to be have the total package: speed, vision and, unlike Giles, a big frame. Plus, Lattimore does not shy from the expectations that his signing brought.
The Parade All-American said he wants to rush for 1,000 yards as a freshman. If he does, he would be the first USC back to accomplish the feat since Derek Watson in 2000 — and the Gamecocks would have the balanced attack of a contender.
The Gamecocks have signed the state’s “Mr. Football” the past two years in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Lattimore, both of whom were Parade All-Americans (as was recruit defensive lineman Kelcy Quarles). Jeffery turned down Southern Cal to play for his home-state school, while defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye was a Virginia Tech commitment coming out of high school.
The Gamecocks get Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas at home. Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray will have only one start under his belt when he arrives at Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 11 for the noon start.
USC gets a week off before facing defending national champion Alabama and has a nonconference game against Troy before its Thanksgiving weekend trip to Clemson.
USC shelled out a lot of money to keep Ellis Johnson after Tennessee first-year coach Derek Dooley came after Johnson for the Vols’ defensive coordinator position. USC gave Johnson a contract extension that doubled his annual salary to $700,000 a year rather than let the Winnsboro native walk.
Johnson’s defenses are always well prepared and his schemes are sound. The Gamecocks have finished in the top 15 nationally in total defense in Johnson’s first two years, and — despite the loss of program sacks leader Eric Norwood — this season should be no different.
MORE INVOLVED SPURRIER
The Head Ball Coach, who resumed play-calling responsibilities late last season, has indicated he plans to continue to serve as the principal play-caller.
That won’t solve all the offensive problems, but it’s what USC had in mind when it hired Spurrier before the 2005 season. Spurrier remains a master at reading defenses and changing plays on the fly. But he needs to remember the game plan from last year’s Clemson game and make the running game a priority.
Defensive end Cliff Matthews and tight end/fullback Patrick DiMarco are both leaders by example who return as captains.
Spurrier would love to see Garcia emerge as a stronger locker-room presence in his fourth year in the program.