COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's 2012 football opener -- at Vanderbilt on Aug. 30 -- is more than five months away. But the next month could prove important for the Gamecocks as they conduct spring practices and try to answer some of the questions facing them after they put together the best season in school history in 2011.
Of course, nothing that happens between now and the April 14 spring game will guarantee that USC can replicate or exceed last season's 11-2 record, though the Gamecocks, who finished 2011 ranked No. 9, will almost certainly be ranked in the top 10 when the season begins.
The Gamecocks' first spring practice is today. After that, they have 10 more practice sessions, three Saturday scrimmages (March 24 and 31, and April 7) and the spring game. That makes 15 opportunities to improve and iron out at least some of their uncertainties.
Here are five of the more important questions facing them as they begin spring practices:
1. How will the new coaches fit in?
The biggest offseason storyline in Columbia was the arrival of four new position coaches: Everette Sands (running backs), Kirk Botkin (linebackers), Joe Robinson (special teams and tight ends) and Grady Brown (secondary). Lorenzo Ward will continue to oversee the secondary even though he is now the defensive coordinator -- a role he took on before last season's bowl game.
This spring will be the new coaches' first chance to interact on the practice field with their players, develop relationships and determine who fits best at vacant positions.
Botkin has perhaps the most challenging job, as he must replace last year's leading tackler, spur linebacker Antonio Allen. Also gone is linebacker Rodney Paulk. But Paulk rotated last season with Shaq Wilson, who will be a senior. Reginald Bowens and Quin Smith -- also rising seniors -- rotated at the will linebacker spot. So USC has talent returning there.
2. Who is the biggest loss?
All-America defensive end Melvin Ingram was USC's best player last year. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and cornerback Stephon Gilmore -- who both left early for the NFL -- also were valuable assets. But USC should be able to find answers at those positions, though perhaps not players equal, at this point, to the skill level of Ingram, Jeffery and Gilmore.
The biggest loss is Allen, who was fast enough to keep up in pass coverage and physical enough to stop the run -- an ideal spur. Senior Damario Jeffery, Allen's understudy last season, isn't as quick as Allen and struggled while starting for him in the November loss at Arkansas.
One option at spur is senior DeVonte Holloman. He moved there last spring from strong safety, but ended up playing strong safety last season -- his second as a starter.
3. Why is losing Ingram not a huge deal?
Take nothing away from Ingram, who led USC last season with 15 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. But the ends on the opposite from and behind him are two of USC's best players on either side of the ball: senior Devin Taylor and sophomore Jadeveon Clowney.
Taylor had 8 1/2 tackles for loss and six sacks last year, while Clowney had 12 and eight and showed why he deserved to be the nation's top-ranked recruit in his class. With those two guys back in 2012, USC will have one of college football's best pass-rush tandems.
4. Who needs to have a big spring?
Well, lots of players. But one guy in particular is sophomore cornerback Victor Hampton. USC not only lost Gilmore, but also C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett, who split time at the other corner spot. Hampton didn't start any games last season, but he played in 10 and had an interception and three pass break-ups.
This spring is a chance for Hampton to show everybody why he was ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 6 corner and No. 60 overall recruit when he came to Columbia in 2010. It is also a chance for him to show he has matured. He was suspended for the first three games of last season for breaking unspecified team rules.
5. Where might USC need a later bloomer?
The Gamecocks are losing a big receiving target in Jeffery, who was listed last season at 6-4 and 229 pounds. Jeffery caught 49 passes last season. USC's No. 2 receiver, Ace Sanders, caught 29. No other wide receiver caught more than Nick Jones' 12. But Sanders and Jones are 5-7 and 5-9 -- not the type of big, physical outside receiver that Jeffery is.
That's where senior D.L. Moore could come in. He is 6-4 and 203 pounds. He played in 12 games last season (one start), but had just eight catches for 52 yards and a touchdown.
In his first two seasons combined, he had 24 catches for 263 yards and three touchdowns, while starting 12 of 14 games in 2010. This spring is a big opportunity for him.
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