COLUMBIA -- The start of South Caro-lina's football season is now less than a month away.

There's a significantly shorter wait until the beginning of preseason camp for the Gamecocks. It begins at 7 tonight on the Bluff Road Practice Fields. It's open to the public, as are all the practices during the first week of camp.

Here are five stories to watch in the next month on the countdown to the Sept. 2 opener against Southern Miss.

Garcia's growth prospects

The intriguing ride at South Carolina continues for Stephen Garcia. The quarterback made marked strides last season, his first as a full-time starter.

What is there to expect from Garcia this year, as a redshirt junior? Great question. Garcia was pretty so-so in the spring, at best. But that's not always a true indication of how a fall will go, right?

Garcia needs to make better decisions on a more consistent basis, and the Gamecocks will win. He doesn't have to be perfect. He doesn't have to win games by himself. But he does need to play smart, knowing when to run, when to throw -- and when to throw it away.

Steve Spurrier has already floated the idea of a platoon, with freshman Connor Shaw. A warning: That might not be the best idea, where Garcia's psyche is concerned.

How it lines up

A lot of folks think if South Carolina's offensive line play improves, the Gamecocks could compete for the division.

It makes sense. If USC can just get into the top half in sacks allowed and rushing yards a game, just imagine what it would do for the offense. Balance is key. Although it hasn't been solely the line's fault, it's a good place to start.

There are reasons for hope, beginning with new position coach Shawn Elliott. He brings with him a lot of knowledge and good mojo from the highly successful Appalachian State program.

Elliott is looking for athletic linemen who can get out and move around in his zone-blocking scheme. He's looking for accountability and cohesiveness. Unlike Eric Wolford, who supported constant competition, Elliott wants to find five guys to play throughout the fall.

There's a chance it could be four seniors -- Jarriel King, Garrett Chisolm, Terrence Campbell and Hutch Eckerson -- and sophomore T.J. Johnson. If not, there are incoming freshmen who could be ready by October or November.

In the Gamecocks' defense

There's a ton of returning talent on Ellis Johnson's defense, which was third in the SEC last season, but it's not as if it doesn't come without its fair share of questions.

There are the key players returning from injury, such as tackle Travian Robertson and middle linebacker Rodney Paulk. There are position changes -- namely the corner-safety flip-flop of Akeem Auguste and Chris Culliver.

It'll be interesting to see, particularly, how Culliver adjusts after missing the spring because of another shoulder surgery.

August will be a great time, too, to see how depth developed in the spring. That was Johnson's primary focus then, with so many starters on the sideline because of injuries.

Keep an eye, particularly, on tackle Kenny Davis, linebacker Qua Gilchrist and safety Corey Addison, all of whom are vital for depth.

Marcus' mark on offense

The coaches are probably just as curious as fans are to see Marcus Lattimore -- the nation's top running back prospect, according to some recruiting services.

Lattimore has had a terrific summer, supposedly, but it'll be truly interesting to see how he fares during camp. Some say Lattimore is the definition of versatility, a bit of all the team's other runners in one human. Time will tell.

It's intriguing, to see how Lattimore picks things up. Position coach Jay Graham was very upbeat last week about Lattimore's chances of playing right away.

There are viable options at running back, but it would really jolt the team if he brought a punch.

There are a couple of other freshmen who could provide immediate impacts. One is Lattimore's high school teammate at Byrnes, receiver Nick Jones. Jones or Florida product Ace Sanders might provide a spark. They're smaller, quicker receivers to go with some of the team's bigger targets.

A.J. Cann is the freshman lineman that Spurrier has buzzed most about.

Getting their kicks

This may seem a bit obscure, but South Carolina's race for a kickoff specialist, between Joey Scribner-Howard and Jay Wooten, is an important one.

Any team that allowed three kickoff returns for scores in the previous year knows the importance of kickoff distance, hangtime and placement.

Scribner-Howard and Wooten, both transfers, had to sit a year ago.

Special teams coordinator Shane Beamer is curious to see if Scribner-Howard or Wooten's legs are stronger than they were in the spring. Neither had a particularly great spring, so that's why camp will be important for both.

No one wants to see Spencer Lanning, the team's punter and field-goal man, have to come in and kick off. Lanning, who did have to do all three at varying points in 2009, has enough on his plate.

Beamer points out that kickoffs have become a far more important play the past two years, since the NCAA moved the kickoff to the 30-yard line. Last year, there were 17 kickoffs for touchdowns, for and against, involving SEC teams. Compare that to just three in 2007.

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).

SOUTH CAROLINA FOOTBALL PRACTICE SCHEDULE

Practice 1: Tuesday, August 3: 7:30 p.m. (Helmets only)

Practice 2: Wednesday, August 4: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 3: Thursday, August 5: 7:30 p.m. (Helmets and shoulder pads)

Practice 4: Friday, August 6: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 5: Saturday, August 7: 7:30 p.m. (First day of full pads)

Practice 6: Sunday, August 8: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 7: Monday, August 9: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 8: Tuesday, August 10: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 9: Wednesday, August 11: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 10: Thursday, August 12: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 11: Friday, August 13: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 12: Saturday, August 14: 3:45 p.m.

Practice 13: Sunday, August 15: Fan Appreciation Day, 1-2:30 p.m., Practice: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 14: Monday, August 16: 3:30 p.m.

Practice 15: Tuesday, August 17: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 16: Wednesday, August 18: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 17: Thursday, August 19: 4:15 p.m.

Practice 18: Friday, August 20: 4:15 p.m.

Practice 19: Saturday, August 21: 11 a.m.

Practice 20: Monday, August 23: 7:30 p.m.

Practice 21: Tuesday, August 24: 4:15 p.m.

Practice 22: Wednesday, August 25: 4:15 p.m.

Practice 23: Thursday, August 26: 4:15 p.m.

Practice 24: Saturday, August 28: 7 p.m.

Practice 25: Sunday, August 29: 7 p.m.

Practice 26: Monday, August 30: 7 p.m.

Practice 27: Tuesday, August 31: 4:15 p.m.