JP25 - #22 SOUTH CAROLINA
Steve Spurrier heaped big expectations on his team heading into the 2007 season. After a 6-1 start that included a victory at Georgia it looked like he might have been right about declaring the Gamecocks ready to win the SEC East. But the injuries piled up and an inability to stop the run led to five straight losses to close the season. SC didn't even manage to grab a bowl berth.
Offense- This definitely isn't the Spurrier offenses of old. In fact, the only thing reminiscent of his days in The Swamp is the fact that nobody has any idea who is going to be quarterbacking this team. Stephen Garcia would appear to be the most able player at the position, but he keeps getting in trouble and is currently suspended from the team. That leaves Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher to compete for the job. Beecher was named the starter coming out of spring practices, but that may simply be because Smelley isn't an SEC-caliber quarterback. Is Beecher? We'll find out.
The receiving corps will at least be a little more experienced this season, led by the dynamite senior Kenny McKinley and tight end Jared Cook. McKinley is truly one of the elite receivers in the SEC, and he'll bail out whoever is playing QB more often than not. Cook is one of the best pass catching tight ends in the nation as well. There are a host of other receivers who got a year of experience under their belt in 2007, so it would be nice if one established himself as a reliable #2 wideout.
The loss of Cory Boyd at running back leaves a big hole to fill. Boyd was a tough runner with a good burst, and good enough hands to haul in 36 passes on the season. Senior Mike Davis will get first shot at replacing him, but he's nowhere near the player Boyd was. Spurrier needs either sophomore Brian Maddox or freshman Eric Baker to step up and fill the void or it is going to be that much tougher on the quarterback.
The Gamecocks should be in better shape up front. Last season's instability, which included rotating players in and out of the lineup at multiple positions, means that eight linemen return with starting experience. They should be sorted out and much more consistent in '08. They'll need to be with the question marks in the backfield.
Defense- As hard as this is to believe, the defense will probably be the backbone of this Spurrier team. The Gamecocks gave up loads of real estate on the ground in 2007 (209 yards per game, which ranked last in the SEC and 110th in the nation), but they suffered several injuries up front, and have brought in new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson from Mississippi State. Johnson shuffled some players around to better utilize their strengths, and stud Jasper Brinkley returns after missing the majority of last season due to injury.
The linebacking corps might actually be one of the best in the conference. Brinkley should be an all-SEC candidate, as he was well on his way to becoming last season before he got hurt. There's no way he lets this defense give up over 200 yards per game on the ground again. Eric Norwood stepped into the spotlight in 2007 as a defensive end, but he was moved to outside linebacker in the spring to give him more freedom to roam and make plays. Rodney Paulk and Marvin Sapp each had over 60 tackles in '07 and might not even secure the other starting spot.
The defensive line is bolstered by the return of Jordin Lindsey, who was ineligible last year, and Cliff Matthews, who moved from linebacker. These two pass rushers should be a nice complement to a trio of tackles that will rotate in order to stay fresh. Nathan Pepper and Marque Hall were two other players hobbled by injuries last year who should help bolster this unit against opposing running games.
Even if the front seven suffers as many injuries as they did last season, the defense is still in good hands with a secondary that returns two more All-SEC candidates. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn not only has one of the coolest names in the nation, he also is one of the better playmakers in the SEC. And if his ballhawking skills don't scare you, strong safety Emanuel Cook's hard hitting and sure tackling should. Cook is one of the best safeties in the SEC and the next tackle he misses will be his first. These two combined to lead SC as the top pass defense in the SEC, where they gave up only 169 yards per game.
If the defense can avoid the same injuries it accumulated in 2007, there is no reason for this defense not to be one of the better units in the SEC. There are stars at every level of the defense, and as many as five players with All-League capability.
Rising Star- Defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye.
Keep An Eye On- Improvements in the front seven on defense, especially against the run.