April 17, 2008

Spring Game Preview: More Offense This Year?

Like many South Carolina fans, Steve Spurrier was bored to tears watching the Gamecock offense try to score in last April's Garnet and Black game.

Hampered by an offensive line that struggled throughout to control an aggressive USC defense, Gamecock quarterbacks had little time to drop back and throw a pass, let alone complete one.

With quarterbacks Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher currently locked in a close race for the starting job, Spurrier is taking steps this year to make certain the same thing doesn't happen again.

The offensive numbers from last April's Garnet and Black game were certainly troubling. Quarterbacks Blake Mitchell and Chris Smelley combined to complete just 23 of 61 passes for 223 yards and one touchdown, a 1-yard TD toss from Mitchell to Kenny McKinley in the second quarter that proved to be the final tally of the game.

"Last year was all (defense). We couldn't block them," Spurrier said. "We couldn't block those defensive linemen."

The first two touchdowns in last year's game came on short runs by Cory Boyd.

This quote from Spurrier summed up his frustrations with the offense in last year's spring game: "We didn't have many highlight plays. It was tough for the offense. When you get dominated up front, it's hard to find a ball play or two. The offensive line got steamrolled by the defensive line a little bit."

Spurrier has always advocated throwing the ball at lot in the spring game in order to evaluate where the quarterbacks and receivers stand. This year should be no different, especially with two QB's fighting tooth and nail for the starting job.

In order to give his quarterbacks time to drop back and throw a pass without being constantly harassed by a defender - which is what happened last year - Spurrier intends to curtail what the defense can do in terms of pressuring the quarterback.

"Hopefully, we can give our guys some protection and get some guys open and throw the ball around like I'm used to throwing it around," Spurrier said recently. "We're going to tweak it so there's not as severe of a pass rush as last year. We're going to see if these receivers can get open and catch or not. That's what we need to find out."

Spurrier, however, hasn't specified what his plans are.

USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, a former head coach at The Citadel, sympathizes with Spurrier's plight.

"I don't know what the rules are going to be, but I do know we don't have anybody at linebacker who can play quarterback," Johnson said. "I'm all in favor of those quarterbacks making it to the first game. I've been a head coach before. I'm not going to get all upset about that."

While Smelley and Beecher should have plenty of opportunities to throw the ball, one quarterback who won't be there is redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia, who was suspended until Aug. 15 following three run-ins with police over a 15-month period.

Injuries on the defensive side of the ball could further bolster the hopes of the offense for a productive afternoon. Four potential starters - middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, strong safety Emanuel Cook and defensive lineman Nathan Pepper - won't play in the game as they complete their recoveries from injuries.

Cook suffered broken thumb earlier this month, while the other three are healing from injuries sustained last season.

Brinkley has participated in non-contact drills since spring practice started in late March, but USC's coaches have taken a conservative approach with one of the Gamecocks' best defensive players.

If the defense, as expected, is handcuffed in what they can do as far as attacking schemes are concerned, it could be problematic for fans trying to determine how much progress the offensive line has made since struggling for most of the 2007 season.

The spring game will also provide an optimum opportunity to critique the play-calling skills of Steve Spurrier, Jr., who has assumed some of that responsibility from his father, regarded as one of the best play-callers of the modern era.

Spurrier said Thursday that the thought of handing over some of the play-calling duties first entered his mind a couple of years ago.

"(Play-calling) has changed a lot in the last 20 years. I learned a couple of years ago when we opened up at Mississippi State that it doesn't matter what kind of plays you have when you can't block the other team's defensive line," Spurrier said. "We had all these pass plays ready. We worked on them all pre-season. But our quarterbacks could hardly get a pass off. So we had to just run the ball and throw some quick screens.

"After the game, I realized I had wasted the entire summer putting all these plays in. We couldn't block their guys. You can waste a lot of time scheming up if you can't block."

After his unit struggled in 2007, offensive line coach John Hunt has recently expressed optimism about the state of the O-Line. The spring has been highlighted by position battles throughout the line, including left tackle, where redshirt sophomore Hutch Eckerson and redshirt freshman Quintin Richardson have battled to take over for Jamon Meredith, who's out of the first two games.

Garrett Anderson started the spring as the first-team center, but a back injury has forced him to the sidelines. Seaver Brown has taken over the top job, while redshirt freshman Ryan Broadhead is the backup.

Redshirt freshman Kyle Nunn is pushing senior Justin Sorensen at the right tackle spot. Spurrier suggested recently that Nunn had a chance to win the job.

Both guard spots are up for grabs among a number of players.

The running back position has seen a three-way battle all spring between senior Mike Davis, sophomore Brian Maddox and true freshman Eric Baker. Davis is the incumbent with 1,658 career rushing yards, but he's felt the pressure from the two younger, les experienced players.

Baker offers another dimension to the USC running game - superior speed to the outside and the ability to make tacklers miss.

All three running backs should get an opportunity to showcase their skills in the Garnet and Black game. Bobby Wallace, last year's leading rusher in the spring game with 67 yards on 10 carries, has mostly been a non-factor this year due to academic concerns.

With Kenny McKinley sidelined, the quarterbacks will need to find another target to throw the ball. Moe Brown has enjoyed a solid spring, while Matt Clement and Dion Lecorn (27 catches in 2007) impressed the coaches in Monday night's non-tackling scrimmage.

Redshirt freshmen Joseph Hills and Jason Barnes are still learning the system, but have shown flashes of their considerable talents.

Defensively, the line has the potential of giving the O-Line fits again, even with the yet unannounced restrictions forced upon it. Brad Lawing has plenty of talent to work with, starting with defensive end Cliff Matthews and tackle Ladi Ajiboye.

Johnson described the defensive line recently as the strength of the Gamecock defense.

Rodney Paulk and Melvin Ingram will play most of the snaps at middle linebacker in the absence of Brinkley. Paulk has impressed Johnson this spring with his intensity and passion for the game.

Saturday's contest will mark the most extensive game action to date for Eric Norwood at outside linebacker. The former standout defensive end will be counted on as a pass rushing specialist from the edge.

With Munnerlyn and Cook sidelined, the door is wide open for several young players to make an impression in the secondary. At cornerback, Addison Williams, Jamire Williams and Akeem Auguste will all try to take the next step towards earning playing time in the fall.

Former wide receivers Chris Culliver and Mark Barnes will likely see their first significant action at safety since their high school days.

South Carolina has spent a great deal of time on special teams this fall under the watchful eye of new special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski.

Ryan Succop will handle the place-kicking duties, while Spencer Lanning will continue his quest to become USC's new punter and, in the process, give Succop a chance to rest his powerful right leg.

Following the conclusion of the spring game, the Gamecock players will have the next six weeks off until the start of the summer conditioning program in early June.

"We try to give our players a game plan for the summer and trust that they'll follow it," Spurrier said.

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