COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s first preseason scrimmage Saturday afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium provided a glimpse of the Gamecocks’ not-so-distant future.
At one end of the stadium, a new video board towered over the bleachers, as workers applied the finishing touches to a screen that will replay the Gamecocks’ most memorable moments this season. On the field below, two highly regarded true freshmen showed why they could contribute to those moments, and to an offense in need of more receiving threats.
Wide receiver Shaq Roland caught four passes for 59 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown that provided the scrimmage’s glitziest highlight. Roland leaped, as he seems to do with such ease, and pulled down the ball just in time to tap one foot just inside the back of the end zone.
Tight end Jerell Adams will never be confused with Roland. Adams is 6-6 and 224 pounds, five inches taller and 51 pounds heavier than Roland. But Adams looked just as capable of catching balls downfield.
He had a 23-yard catch and a 43-yarder for a touchdown.
Last season, USC completed 34 passes for 20-plus yards, ranking No. 76 nationally. Fourteen of them went to now-departed receiver Alshon Jeffery. In 2010, he caught 26 of USC’s 47 completions of 20-plus yards — a team total that ranked No. 16 nationally. In short, Jeffery played a part in half of USC’s big passing plays during the past two seasons (40 of 81).
No one is suggesting that Roland or Adams will replicate Jeffery’s dominant-at-times ability in their first season. Most likely, USC’s passing game will use a by-committee approach, and obviously depends on quarterback Connor Shaw applying the primary improvement he made during spring practices — staying in the pocket longer and keeping his eyes downfield.
Still, coach Steve Spurrier really likes Roland and Adams.
“(Roland) will be moving up (the depth chart) as we go,” Spurrier said. “He’s a smart kid. He pretty much knows what to do. Usually, the first scrimmage, the coach stands behind all these guys and tells them where to go. But Shaq pretty much knows enough right now and he learns about every day. Very coachable kid.”
Spurrier was more effusive in his praise of Adams, who he said “looks like one of those all-pro NFL tight ends right now. He’s about 6-5, 6-6, he’s tough, he can catch, he can block. He’s a pretty good target. I would imagine he’s going to be doing a lot of ball playing for us.”
Spurrier has said as much since the early stages of preseason practices. While the Gamecocks are deep at tight end, led by Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson, Cunningham is not nearly the receiving threat that Anderson is. At 6-4 and 264 pounds, Cunningham’s main strength is blocking, though he did have 18 catches for 142 yards and a touchdown last season, compared to Anderson’s eight for 188 and three touchdowns.
USC was not a passing team in 2011, and in fact looked very little like a team whose offense was coordinated by Spurrier, based on his track record. The Gamecocks threw 24.4 times a game, No. 104 nationally. They ran 42.5 times a game, No. 23.
Jeffery was responsible for 49 of their 191 catches and 762 of their 2,359 yards. But if Ace Sanders, their only proven returning receiver, can keep playing well and fresh faces like Roland and Adams begin to emerge, perhaps Spurrier’s latest team will resemble some of his old ones.
Spurrier said redshirt sophomore Tyler Hull likely will be USC’s punter. Hull played in 2010 at Division III Guilford in North Carolina and spent last fall attending Surry Community College in Dobson, N.C., near his hometown, Mount Airy.