February 11, 2008

2008 Offensive Outlook: Questions Abound

As South Carolina begins preparations for the 2008 season, the only thing certain on offense is Kenny McKinley will be the top wide receiver.

Everything else is one big question mark.

And no position epitomizes the uncertainly more than quarterback. With Blake Mitchell graduated, the battle to become the new starter will primarily involve three signal-callers: Chris Smelley, Stephen Garcia and Tommy Beecher.

Who has the edge? Well, if you try to read between the lines of head coach Steve Spurrier's recent comments about the need to turn the quarterback into a greater running threat, you'd say Garcia considering his versatility.

But Spurrier said last week he intends to give each of the candidates an "equal opportunity" to win the job.

"It's wide open right now," quarterbacks coach David Reaves said. "We'll let those guys go at it. We'll see who plays the best this spring and we'll go from there."

Garcia, a redshirt freshman, hasn't played a down yet of college football. He impressed onlookers last fall with his ability to run and throw the football, and reportedly was a terror as the scout team quarterback.

But that doesn't minimize the fact Garcia still hasn't appeared in a game with live bullets. As a result, he's still mostly an unknown.

"He hasn't done anything yet," Reaves said. "As far as his workouts and going to class and maturity and all that, Stephen has done a wonderful job for us. We're looking forward to him having a good spring practice. Everything that happened to him (two arrests in Jan. 2007) was in the first two weeks after he got here. Since then, he's been a model student, model athlete."

The edge in experience factor lies with Smelley. But the last time we saw the Tuscaloosa, Ala. native on the field, he struggled to get anything accomplished against Vanderbilt and threw a back-breaking interception in the end zone to kill a promising drive against the Commodores.

Prior to that game, however, Smelley performed well in leading USC to victories over Mississippi State, Kentucky and North Carolina. He finished the year with a 56.8 percent completion percentage (92 of 162) with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions for a efficiency rating of 127.46.

"Chris is doing well" Reaves reported. "He's working hard in the off-season program. He's doing everything right. He's in the classroom and studying on his own. We're excited for Chris to have a good spring practice."

But don't discount Beecher, either. He's entering his fourth year with the program and has performed fairly well in his limited playing time. Last season he completed 14 of 23 passes for 175 yards and one touchdown.

The uncertainty extends into the running back position, as well, where Mike Davis (518 rushing yards in 2007) is the apparent successor to Cory Boyd as the No.1 running back.

But, there's a potential wrench in his plans to assume the mantle of top running back. Davis faces the possibility of sitting out at least the first two games next season as a result of missing too many classes in the fall semester.

Spurrier said last week "it wasn't written in stone" Davis will be suspended.

So, if the Columbia High product is forced to miss the North Carolina State and Vanderbilt games, who will take his place?

Right now, it's anybody's guess.

The favorites based on experience would be redshirt juniors Bobby Wallace and Taylor Rank. But Wallace suffered a serious shoulder injury in fall camp and didn't play at all last season, while Rank had just two carries for five yards.

That means the door is wide open for sophomore Brian Maddox or one of the incoming freshmen running backs to seize the moment. Maddox, who rushed for 1,750 yards as a senior at T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, S.C., had six carries for 20 yards in limited duty behind Boyd and Davis last season. He saw most of his action on special teams.

Eric Baker, who spent last fall at Fork Union Military Academy in Chatham, Va., enrolled at USC in January and will have the opportunity to participate in spring practice, giving him an edge over Kenny Miles, a record setting RB from Lawrenceville, Ga. who signed with USC last week.

Baker led the State of Florida in rushing with 1,703 yards during his senior season in 2006 at Edward White High School in Jacksonville, Fla. Miles piled up even more impressive numbers at Brookwood High School, rushing for over 2,400 yards to garner first-team all-state honors in the Peach State.

If Davis is suspended at the beginning of the season, is it possible USC's top three running backs for the first few games of the 2008 season could be a sophomore (Maddox) and a pair of freshmen (Baker and Miles)? Absolutely.

With 143 career receptions, McKinley delivers plenty of experience to the wide receiver position. Spurrier knows what he'll get from the consistent McKinley.

After that, it's up in the air. Can Dion Lecorn improve on his outstanding 2007 season when he emerged from a highly regarded pack of young receivers to finish with 27 receptions, two more than McKinley had as a freshman in 2005.

Spurrier has spoken highly of Joseph Hills, a talented 6-foot-4 wide receiver from Palmetto, Fla. who suffered an injury early in fall camp last August and stepped on the field for just a few snaps.

The three most heralded receivers in last year's class - Jason Barnes, Mark Barnes and Chris Culliver - combined for three receptions for 46 yards and one touchdown.

Will they be able to improve on those numbers? They should after a year of learning what it takes to compete in the SEC.

"(The receivers) need to rally have a good spring practice," Spurrier said. "We need to find out who can play."

The addition of 6-foot-4 D.L. Moore of Bowling Green. Ky. on Signing Day after a few anxious moments gives the Gamecocks another tall receiver to go along with Hills, Jason Barnes (6-foot-3) and Mark Barnes (6-foot-2).

With so many talented young receivers on campus, it will be up to veterans like Moe Brown (13 receptions in 2007), Freddie Brown (17) and Larry Freeman (2) to keep up.

Jared Cook (30 receptions in 2007) surfaced last season as a legitimate pass-receiving threat at tight end, combining with sophomore Weslye Saunders (12 receptions) to make that position vibrant again after years of sticking mainly with blocking duties.

But Cook and Saunders must improve their blocking skills to remain on the field for more snaps.

Any talk about blocking leads directly to quite possibly the most enigmatic position on the team - the offensive line. Without question, the unit struggled last season to either protect the quarterback (31 sacks allowed, second highest in the SEC) or open holes in the running game (league worst 113.7 rushing yards per game).

Where does Spurrier and offensive line coach John Hunt go from here? By opening up all the positions for competition to start with.

Hopefully, by the end of spring practice a starting five will start to emerge. If not, the positional battles will continue into fall camp. Who will survive? Your guess is as good as mine.

But don't be shocked if redshirt freshmen Kyle Nunn and Quintin Richardson force their way into the lineup.

The intriguing part heading into spring practice is the offensive line could end up with a bunch of young guns like Nunn, Richardson, Heath Batchelor, Hutch Eckerson, Seaver Brown, Kevin Young and Ryan Broadhead, or it could feature three seniors (Jamon Meredith, Justin Sorensen, Gurminder Thind) and a junior (Garrett Anderson).

Which direction will it go? Stay tuned.

The only thing certain about the offensive line at this point is Hunt must find a replacement for Meredith at left tackle for the first two regular season contests.

Meredith is required to sit out those games as a condition of the NCAA granting him a medical hardship for the 2004 season after he played a few snaps in the season opener against Vanderbilt during Lou Holtz's final season as head coach.

Will Meredith be able win back his job after missing those first two games?

That's just one more question the offense has to answer.

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