College Football Preview 2014-2015: 12. South Carolina Gamecocks
Coach: Steve Spurrier (10th year)
2013-2014 Record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC)
August 28th vs. Texas A&M
September 6th vs. East Carolina
September 13th vs. Georgia
September 20th @ Vanderbilt
September 27th vs. Missouri
October 4th @ Kentucky
October 18th vs. Furman
October 25th @ Auburn
November 1st vs. Tennessee
November 15th @ Florida
November 22nd vs. South Alabama
November 29th @ Clemson
Steve Spurrier continues to do great things at South Carolina, winning 11 games for the third straight season. Although Connor Shaw struggled through injuries his senior season and Jadeveon Clowney was not nearly as dominant as expected, South Carolina finished with an 11-2 mark, bowl victory over Wisconsin and a No.4 ranking in the 2013 Final AP Top 25. Shaw, Clowney and a number of others are gone but Spurrier has recruited well and he has a number of contributors ready to step up and keep this team in contention in the SEC East.
Backfield: Shaw was great in his time in Columbia but senior Dylan Thompson is more than ready to step up. Thompson has seen a lot of action backing up Shaw the past couple of seasons and he has all the tools to put together a good 2014. He moves very well in the pocket and make throws on the run; he has a big arm that can make the big throws. Joining Thompson in the backfield will be another veteran in junior Mike Davis at running back. Davis was a monster in 2013, rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns. Davis is a powerful runner despite being just 5'9" but can also change games with his electrifying speed and agility. If he can stay healthy, he could easily be an All-SEC back, possibly even competing for higher honors. Another veteran running back, junior Brandon Wilds, who saw less action in 2013 after being an important contributor in his freshman campaign, could compete for important carries.
Offensive Line: The SEC is full of great offensive lines but few in the conference could be better than South Carolina's unit. This O-Line returns four starters, all of whom are over 300 pounds, showing experience and just impressive size. The exterior of the Gamecocks' line could be fantastic, with the return of senior guard A.J. Cann, along with tackle Corey Robinson and junior Brandon Shell. Robinson, the starter at left tackle, is especially massive, towering over defenders at 6'8", nearly 350 pounds and with long arms, making him nearly impossible to get past. Cann will join him on the left side of this line, while Shell is another huge tackle who will start on the right side. Center Clayton Stradnik is inconsistent but still young and will have the opportunity to grow into a high quality starter. Sophomore Cody Waldrop will compete for starting snaps at right guard, joining Shell on the right side of this unit. Another South Carolina product, offensive guard Donnell Stanley, the nation's No. 14 offensive guard and a four-star prospect has the chance to compete for snaps and another incoming guard Malik Young, who also is from South Carolina, adds important depth to this team.
Defensive Line: Not only do the Gamecocks lose Clowney, who of course went No. 1 to the Texans in this May's NFL Draft, they also lose run stuffer Kelcy Quarles, leaving this line very inexperienced. Senior J.T. Surratt is the lone returner on this unit and he has the chance to have a very productive 2014. Surratt had 33 tackles, four of them for a loss and he has the strength and instincts to continue to improve. Sophomore end Darius English is oozing with potential and could have a breakout year and replace Clowney as the team's next elite pass rusher. English is a quick end with considerable size and a nose for the football. If he stays healthy, English could really be a beast this season. On the other side of the line, another sophomore, Gerald Dixon will look to also step up in a big way. Dixon is a proven help in run defense (30 tackles in 2013, 4 tackles for loss) but he could also grow into a formidable pass rusher if he gets a little bit bigger and stronger. Spurrier, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and the rest of this staff brought in a ton of stud defensive linemen prospects. Four-star defensive end Dante Sawyer, a freak of an athlete and two JUCO commits, Jhaustin Thomas and Abu Lamin, will compete for snaps right away. Thomas has impressive size and potential and Lamin was a big find for Spurrier, as he spurned a number of other SEC schools.
Linebackers: With the amount of pass rush gone from this defensive line, Lorenzo Ward and South Carolina will lean on his linebackers to provide some pressure on opponents. Sophomore Skai Moore had an impressive year last season, recording 56 tackles and four interceptions. Moore, who exploded on to the scene last season for South Carolina, is young but extremely talented and provides a ton of versatility to this group. Joining Moore in the linebackers group will be junior Kaiwan Lewis, a smart, reliable linebacker. Lewis had 54 tackles and 1 sack last season, proving to be a disruptive presence but also a versatile player who could be a help in coverage. Senior Sharrod Golightly has a fantastic name and is a great talent. He will man the "SPUR" position on defense, a hybrid linebacker/defensive back. He will be responsible for helping cover tight ends or slot receivers and his experience should definitely help. Marcquis Roberts adds depth to the unit; he is a veteran presence who had 48 tackles a year ago. Inside linebacker Joe Blue was a nice pickup by South Carolina. The three-star commit from Dillon, South Carolina arrives with very little fanfare but has the potential to really grow into a reliable 'backer. Four-star outside linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams is a great athlete who is raw but will find ways to make an impact. Allen-Williams has blend of speed, size and strength to become a dangerous linebacker in his career in Columbia.
Secondary: The secondary has some holes, but appears to be the real strength of this South Carolina defense, as three impact defensive backs return after seeing starts in 2013. Senior Brison Williams is the most recognizable; the steady vet had 45 tackles along with an interception. Williams really can do a variety of different things, he has proven to be a help in run defense, pass defense or can make an impact blitzing the quarterback. Joining Williams will be safety Kadetrix Marcus, another senior with plenty of experience. Marcus is a great athlete with great speed who could play a much bigger role after 25 tackles last season. Sophomore Chaz Elder will also compete for snaps, most likely at the free safety position. Junior T.J. Gurley is an underrated piece to this defensive backfield who can play a number of different positions for the Gamecocks. Gurley is another excellent athlete with good hands who will add important depth to the entire unit. The questions are at cornerback, as South Carolina loses stud Victor Hampton (51 tackles, three interceptions, 9 passes defended) and the experience at this position is little. Sophomore Rico McWilliams is really the only returning cornerback on this roster who has seen much action. McWilliams has talent but is prone to mistakes and still has a long way to go. The good news is a ton of help arrives in the 2014 recruiting class as in come D.J. Smith, Wesley Green, Al Harris and more. Some, especially Smith and Green, could be thrust into important roles right away. It will be interesting to see how they handle the situation.
Special Teams: Former walk-on Elliott Fry was terrific last year, knocking down 15 of his 18 field goals with a long of 45. He is very reliable entering his sophomore year and is one of the SEC's best. Pharoh Cooper was terrific as a return specialist in his freshman year and will be counted on to even more, even with his workload as a receiver increasing.
It is becoming a very common theme inside the SEC East: the South Carolina vs. Georgia matchup is deciding the division (ignoring Missouri's magical 2013, of course). This year, whoever wins that game surely will win the division and it could well be the Gamecocks, who certainly have the talent and experience to do so. If Dylan Thompson takes over the quarterback duties well and the defense finds some form of pass rush, South Carolina could be heading for another 11-win type season, even with a brutal early season stretch of games.