COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's football team, without question, took steps forward in 2010. Will 2011 be as good to the Gamecocks, if not better? The pieces are seemingly in place for the team to get back to the SEC championship game. The Gamecocks would like to redeem themselves for two lackluster Georgia Dome appearances in December, in the SEC title game and then the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Today is the first of 15 spring practices for South Carolina. It's set for 4 p.m. at the Bluff Road practice fields. All 15 practices are open to the public, although coach Steve Spurrier has asked that fans refrain from seeking autographs.
Here are five questions that South Carolina will work to answer in the following month:
1) Is Stephen Garcia the team's best quarterback?
This is a familiar question, one that seems to come up each spring and summer -- and even during the season. Connor Shaw has now been in the program more than a year. Garcia, a fifth-year senior, is by far the more physically gifted athlete. But everyone, including Spurrier, knows there's more to the position than physical attributes.
Shaw will push Garcia this spring; that much is a lock. But can the sophomore gain enough ground to be considered a legitimate threat to the position by August? How much more does Shaw bring to the position than a year ago? Same question applies to Garcia.
2) How much better is Marcus Lattimore?
That question might also be, "How much bigger is Marcus Lattimore?" Evidently the running back has gone into freak mode in the weight room during winter workouts. What will that produce on the field, even in the spring?
Lattimore has lofty goals for his second season at South Carolina. Spurrier might take it easy on him in the efforts of finding quality depth, but a look at Lattimore's size will be worth its weight in diamonds.
3) What can Shawn Elliott get out of this line?
You really don't know what you've got in an offensive line until it goes against another team's defensive line. So, the true fruits of Elliott's work will not be known until the fall.
Already, though, the O-line has an advantage: It's the first time the position's coach has remained the same since 2007. That's got to help. Look to see what sort of progress youngsters such as A.J. Cann have made and if they're ready to make waves up front for Lattimore and USC.
4) What in the world happened to the passing defense in 2010?
It's still a question rattling around inside Spurrier's head. He reassigned Jeep Hunter to work with good friend Whammy Ward in the secondary. Will that bring positive change? And what about some position moves, such as moving Akeem Auguste back to his more natural corner position?
These 15 practices might not be any more beneficial to any one particular group than the secondary? It will be tested by USC's talented receivers -- namely Alshon Jeffery -- and the coaches will work to tweak whatever was going wrong a year ago. The defensive backs need a clean slate; they'll get one today.
5) What does John Butler bring for the special teams units?
There's one new position coach this spring, and he just arrived. Butler had the reputation of a strong linebackers coach at Minnesota, but his special teams activity wasn't altogether spectacular. He comes in with the same sort of penchant for intensity and energy as strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, whom Butler worked with at Harvard.
Butler will miss Spencer Lanning. Without the do-it-all kicker and punter, Butler will need to use the spring to identify suitors for those positions as well as other specialist jobs.