COLUMBIA — This is a preseason largely lacking drama at South Carolina.
Yes, there is a grand level of anticipation for the season itself, as the Gamecocks are ninth in the coaches’ poll, their best preseason ranking ever. But their depth chart is almost entirely set. And with quarterback Stephen Garcia long gone and far away on the bench with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, there is no soap opera vibe about this team.
Clearly, some of the remaining position competitions — right tackle, place-kicker and punter — are important, despite rarely dominating water cooler conversation. Yet, as you scan the Gamecocks’ depth chart with less than three weeks until the Aug. 30 opener at Vanderbilt, one position group stands out as a glaring question mark, both because of whom USC lost and who it welcomes.
In three seasons at USC, Alshon Jeffery became perhaps the greatest receiver in school history. He holds season records for catches, yards and 100-yard games. He holds career records for yards and 100-yard games, is tied for first in touchdowns and ranks second in catches. In short, he is not easily imitated, not now and perhaps not ever at USC.
As the Gamecocks begin life without Jeffery and try to re-establish their passing game, they have exactly one game-tested receiver — junior Tracy Sanders, whose more widely known nickname, Ace, has already earned him first-name-only status among USC’s fans, like Jeffery had.
Sanders’ 29 catches, 383 yards and two touchdowns still paled compared to Jeffery’s 49 catches, 762 yards and eight touchdowns. While Jeffery is 6-4, broad-shouldered and skilled at yanking down jump balls. Sanders is 5-8 and much faster. Speed is such a valuable part of his game that he was USC’s punt returner last season, a role he figures to reprise this fall.
Sanders has already made cornerbacks Akeem Auguste and Ahmad Christian look foolish this preseason, zipping past both on the first day of practice. Quarterback Connor Shaw figures to be a more comfortable passer in his first full season as the starter, because during spring practices, he emphasized staying in the pocket longer and keeping his eyes downfield. But if the Gamecocks are to return to a more typical Steve Spurrier offense, other receiving threats probably need to emerge. One reason Jeffery caught 39 fewer passes last season than in 2010 is opponents often focused their coverage on his side of the field, daring the Gamecocks to beat them elsewhere.
USC has the capability of doing that with its running game, which could result in more defenders near the line of scrimmage and one-on-one coverage for receivers. The return of tailback Marcus Lattimore, coupled with Shaw’s quickness, makes USC one of the Southeastern Conference’s biggest running threats. Whether that means USC runs 63 percent of the time again, as it did last season, depends on finding dependable receivers other than Sanders.
The most experienced options are sophomores Damiere Byrd and Bruce Ellington, junior DeAngelo Smith and senior D.L. Moore, whose career catches are 1, 17, 4 and 32, respectively. Byrd and Ellington, who are 5-9, possess prodigious speed. Smith and Moore are bigger targets, 6-1 and 6-5.
Byrd is playing the inside slot receiver position, while Sanders is at outside receiver, Jeffery’s old spot. Sanders’ smaller physique as an outside receiver does not concern his position coach, Steve Spurrier Jr., because he should thrive in space outside.
“(The inside receiver) has got to be a better blocker,” Spurrier Jr. said. “And the outside guy gets a little bit more freedom on where he’s going and route running. That’s another good reason for Ace to have a little bit more flexibility on the outside.”
Spurrier Jr. is also evaluating three true freshmen: 6-1 Shaq Roland, 6-4 Kwinton Smith and 5-11 Jody Fuller. Playing time is available, and Spurrier the elder has already said Roland is likely to get some. He was Mr. Football in the state of South Carolina last season.
So far this preseason, he has done his best to keep up, sometimes relying on his natural leaping ability.
“In high school, I could really just run by people,” Roland said. “I’ve really got to focus on route running. The main guy I watch is Ace. His route running is incredible. I’ve never seen a receiver getting out of his cuts like that.”