Who: North Carolina (8-4, 5-3 ACC in 2012) at No. 6 South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC in 2012)
When: Thursday, 6 p.m.
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250), Columbia
Radio: WWIK-FM 98.9
Line: South Carolina by 11
COLUMBIA — One of the biggest question marks coming into the 2013 season for South Carolina was who would replace wide receiver Ace Sanders.
Sanders, who led the Gamecocks with 47 receptions in 2012, left early for the NFL. His departure was supposed to be softened with the return of Bruce Ellington — the two-sport star who had become USC’s go-to receiver late last season.
Ellington, however, might not be available when the sixth-ranked Gamecocks open the season Thursday night against North Carolina. The former Berkeley High School star has missed almost the entire preseason camp after injuring his hamstring during the first week of practice. Instead of getting ready to become the Gamecocks’ No. 1 option in the passing game, Ellington has been reduced to a spectator during practices.
“It’s boring being on the sideline,” Ellington said. “It’s hard coming out here watching the guys go through practice and not being able to do anything. I want to be out here. I want to be helping out, but I can’t. Hopefully, I’ll be out there (Thursday).”
Ellington, the Gamecocks’ top returning receiver with 40 catches for 600 yards, tried to take part in a full practice as recently as Sunday, but tweaked his hamstring again and the doctors shut him down.
Ellington’s status remains in doubt and probably won’t be determined until after pregame warm-ups.
“It’s a day-by-day thing, Ellington said. “There’s not any pain when I’m jogging, but when I hit full speed I feel it a little bit. But I think I can fight through it.”
Throw in starting tight end Rory Anderson, who injured his hamstring and is not expected to play against the Tar Heels, and the Gamecocks receiving corps gets very inexperienced, very quickly.
If Ellington is unable to play, the Gamecocks will have to rely on a group of wide receivers, tight ends and running backs who combined had fewer receptions than Ellington did in 2012.
Damiere Byrd (14 catches, 366 yards, 3 TDs), Nick Jones (12-197-0), Shaq Roland (5-80-1), tight end Jerell Adams (4-90-1) and running back Mike Davis (5-35-0) have never been huge factors in the Gamecocks’ passing game. Shamier Jeffery, the younger brother of South Carolina All-American Alshon Jeffery, has been praised by the coaching staff during preseason camp but has yet to catch a pass in a game.
“A lot of these guys haven’t played much, haven’t caught many passes, so it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out,” USC head coach Steve Spurrier said. “We got Shamier Jeffery ready to play, Damiere Byrd, Shaq Roland ready to go, and Kwinton Smith, K.J. Brent. So there is several unknown players. We’re going to try to get a bunch of them in there. Guys that seem to catch the ball, make a few plays, will stay in there and play more.”
Ellington agreed, and noted that true freshman Pharoh Cooper, who was moved from cornerback to wide receiver two weeks ago, could contribute right away.
“I think everyone is going to do very well,” Ellington said. “Guys have been preparing for this. I think they’re ready for it and I think they’re going to show what they got.”
Jerell Adams and Drew Owens are expected to see more playing time than normal at tight end with Anderson on the sidelines.
“They’re both going to get in there,” Spurrier said.
USC quarterback Connor Shaw said he’s had plenty of time to get comfortable with his other receivers.
“They (Ellington and Anderson) got hurt so early in camp that we’ve had a good amount of reps with the other guys,” Shaw said. “We’ve had some guys really step in and do a good job. They’ll be ready.”
But Shaw doesn’t think it will come to that.
“We’ve got some guys that are banged up, but I think it’s just precautionary,” Shaw said. “I’m confident that they’ll play.”
South Carolina wide receiver Nick Jones races with a 70-yard pass completion in the second quarter against Michigan in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday, January 1, 2013. (Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT)×
USC’s Bruce Ellington looks for running room agains the Missouri defense. (Special to the Post and Courier)×