As time goes on, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier is finding new ways to be impressed with the Gamecocks' incoming freshman class.
The latest to catch his eye are two natives of Alabama - quarterback Chris Smelley (Tuscaloosa) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (Mobile).
Both players put together splendid performances Tuesday night in the fourth practice of fall camp.
Along with Huntsville's Darian Stewart, who has taken advantage of the absence of Brandon Isaac to push his way onto the first-team defense at safety, the pair could form the foundation of college football's version of The Alabama Gang.
Spurrier has tried to go slow with Smelley - who threw for over 10,000 yards in his high school career - in the first several practices. Monday, he had limited reps during the 7-on-7 pass skeleton and 11-on-11 drills.
But Tuesday was a different story. Smelley took eight snaps during the 11-on-11 segment, more than Cade Thompson and Tommy Beecher combined, and completed 4-of-6 passes, including a pair of strikes to tight end Jared Cook.
"Smelley did some good things out there tonight," Spurrier said. "Chris went in there and threw the ball and threw it a lot better tonight. He's starting to use his legs a lot more in his throwing motion and the ball's coming out beautifully."
On the other side, Munnerlyn has impressed the USC defensive coaches with a physical style of play that has stymied Gamecock receivers.
"One guy that nobody seems to be able to beat is Captain Munnerlyn," Spurrier said. "He's not real tall, but he's a strong defensive back that may be our kickoff return guy also. He's tough to beat in man-to-man coverage. He could
be a starter. We're not afraid to play true freshmen as starters, so he'll have a chance."
All-American wide receiver Sidney Rice has also noticed the talents of the lightning quick Munnerlyn, who starred at Murphy High School in Mobile.
"He's a real good player," said Rice, who recently did a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated. "All he has to do is stay humble, keep working hard and he should have no problems playing here. He's real fast."
Fred Bennett added: "I'm very impressed (with Munnerlyn). He's a student of the game. He listens. He wants to be great. I teach him what I can. He's athletic. He's just a player."
USC will have its first full-pad practice of the season Wednesday when it returns to the Bluff Road fields at 7:30 p.m. However, USC will practice the same things, Spurrier said.
Rice is one player eagerly awaiting the opportunity to wear the complete uniform.
"We'll get to bump people around a little bit more," Rice said. "We'll be ready for it tomorrow. We have a couple of guys that will come out ready to hit. We just have to stay focused. Everybody is ready to roll. We're ready to knock each other around a little bit."
Tuesday's workout lasted about 2-1/2 hours in pleasant weather conditions. As far as Spurrier is concerned, it was another night for the Gamecocks to improve as a football team as it prepares for the 2006 season opener Aug. 31 at Mississippi State.
The contest will be nationally televised by ESPN.
"It was another practice tonight," Spurrier said. "(We) ran a lot of plays, nobody got hurt. So hopefully we made a little progress. Other than that, nothing much different."
In the 7-on-7 skeleton drill, Blake Mitchell was a perfect 6-for-6 on this throws, while Cade Thompson was 3-for-5. Tommy Beecher was 2-for-5 and Chris Smelley completed 2-of-4 passes.
Freshman Moe Brown made a sensational diving catch on a pass from Smelley near the sideline before outracing his defender to snag a long pass Mitchell. Tight Jared Cook had three receptions for the offense.
Unlike Monday night when the quarterbacks rotated every play, Mitchell took 12 of the 27 snaps (44.4%) during the 11-on-11 drill and completed 3-of-7 passes.
Smelley took eight snaps, while Thompson had just five and Beecher two. Cook had consecutive receptions from Smelley toward the end of the session.
Those receptions were the highlights of an inconsistent performance from Cook, who is battling Andy Boyd to become USC's top tight end.
"(Cook is) doing okay," Spurrier said. "He's making some errors though in his assignments, which is expected. He's never really
played tight end until this spring and this year. He's got a lot to learn, but he's doing fine. He's a good target."
The highlight reel play of the night came on the 17th play of the 11-on-11 session when defensive back Carlos Thomas went up for a pass and had the ball deflect off his hands right into the waiting arms of O.J. Murdock.
The defense stiffened as the 11-on-11 session went on. Lemuel Jeanpierre and Rodney Paulk recorded sacks in the middle portion of the session before registering two more sacks, two incomplete passes and quarterback keeper over the final five plays.
"The defense has been rolling," Fred Bennett said. "We're coming out and doing the little things. We've got a bunch of new guys. They're just going out and giving 110 percent. We've been playing hard. Hopefully that will carry into the season. We've had some great battles with the wide receivers. We're getting the best out of each other. We're going at it, trying to get each other better."
But the defense may have gotten some assistance from an unexpected source.
"We had a lot of young (offensive) linemen miss guys," Spurrier said. "That's why we practice. We're not good in a lot of areas right now."
Twin brothers Jasper and Casper Brinkley sparked the strong defensive effort with their speed and quickness. Spurrier has certainly noticed their presence.
"They're flying around. They're making things happen," Spurrier said. "They both have good motors, which is exciting for us. At times last year, we had guys that didn't really play real fast and both these young men seem to really enjoy playing the game at a fast pace."
2006 FALL PRACTICE COUNTDOWN
Practices Held - 4
Practices Left - 25
Next Practice - Wednesday, August 9, 7:30 p.m.
Equipment: Full pads.
-- Spurrier acknowledged Tuesday that defensive back Brandon Isaac has "academic issues" in addition to a right hamstring injury. Spurrier suggested USC will announce something regarding Isaac once "we know something where's he's at."
-- Mike Davis missed his fourth consecutive workout with a severe foot infection. He is expected to miss a few more workouts before returning. "The trainers said it will be a couple of days," Spurrier said. "Maybe they'll get that thing to where he can come out. It's just important to keep it dry and let it heal, so that's what they're trying to do."
-- Freshman defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis spent another practice walking or jogging around the perimeter of the football fields. Since the Palm Beach, Fla. native has not been involved in the first four practices, Spurrier told the media Ellis will likely redshirt. The threshold weight for Ellis, according to Spurrier, is 330 pounds. "We don't him to hurt anyone if he falls on them," Spurrier said.
-- Spurrier was asked to respond to a Sports Illustrated article labeling USC as one of 16 national championship contenders. "Everybody's a contender," Spurrier said. "Four writers voted us to win the SEC. Who knows? If we get lucky like we did last year and the ball bounces our way a few times, anything could happen," Spurrier said. "I think we'll be a better team than last year. I said that the other day and I really mean it. Does it mean we'll win more? I don't know. If we can win our close ones and play with effort and so forth, I think we'll be a little bit better than last year's bunch."
-- Defensive tackle Matt Raysor returned to the field Tuesday after being forced to the sidelines for the first three practices after reporting overweight.
-- Rice continued to practice returning punts Tuesday night along with Kenny McKinley, Chris Hail and Cory Boyd. During the punt block drill, the primary blitzers were Bobby Wallace, Mike West, Emanuel Cook, Jerod June, Yvan Banag, and Dakota Walker.
-- After freshman Garrett Anderson and Kevin Young filled the right guard spot for first three practices while he battled weight problems, junior James Thompson was inserted into the first-team right guard spot Tuesday.
-- Here's a description of the 26 plays during the 11-on 11 segment. The initials of the quarterback for that particular play are in parentheses.
1. Pass incomplete (BM)
2. Pass to Sidney Rice (BM)
3. Bobby Wallace run (BM)
4. Pass to Rice (BM)
5. Taylor Rank run (BM)
6. Incomplete pass (BM)
7. Incomplete pass (BM)
8. QB Keeper (CT)
9. Sack (#94)(CT)
10. Bobby Wallace run (TB)
11. Sack (#45)(TB)
12. Wallace run (CS)
13. Incomplete pass (CS)
14. Pass to Rank (CS)
15. Cody Lucas run (CS)
16. Pass batted down (CS).
17. Pass to Murdock (CS)
18. Pass to Jared Cook (CS)
19. Pass to Cook (CS)
20. Lucas run (BM)
21. Rank run (BM)
22. Pass to Rank (BM)
23. Pass incomplete (BM)
24. QB Keeper (BM)
25. Sack (CT)
26. Incomplete pass (CT)
27. Sack (CT).
-- Fan Appreciation day will be held Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Colonial Center. The event is free and open to the public. The doors will open at 12:30 p.m.
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