COLUMBIA — With South Carolina and Clemson ranked in the preseason top 10 together for the first time ever, there might be a temptation to look ahead to their Nov. 30 regular season finale and ponder what it could mean to the Gamecocks’ potentially special season.
And with one of the best players in USC history, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, back for his third and final season, it might be easy to envision Clowney sitting at December’s Heisman Trophy presentation in New York, hoping to become the first exclusively defensive player to win the award.
But those events are four months away, and even further from the minds of USC’s players and coaches as they begin preseason practices Friday. There are far more immediate concerns for the Gamecocks, who had their best ever seasons the past two years (11-2 both times), but must replace two of their top players from 2012: wide receiver Ace Sanders and program-changing running back Marcus Lattimore.
Here are just five of the many questions they will attempt to address during August practices:
1. What’s the linebacker situation?
All three starters will be new. That much we know.
Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis is the likely starting middle linebacker. Redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman could rotate with Lewis or could play weakside linebacker, depending on how sophomore Cedrick Cooper returns from knee surgery that sidelined him for spring practices. Sophomore Marcquis Roberts impressed in the spring and is going to challenge Cooper at the will spot.
Spur linebacker is one of the most interesting battles of preseason, between junior Sharrod Golightly, who had a slight edge coming out of spring, and redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs. This is another spot where the players could rotate if neither wins the job outright.
2. How will the safeties adjust to new roles?
Free safety D.J. Swearinger, USC’s most vocal leader, is now with the Houston Texans. Junior Kadetrix Marcus and sophomore T.J. Gurley played free safety last year but will move to strong safety, switching places with junior Brison Williams, last year’s starting strong safety.
Gurley missed the spring because of knee surgery, but held his own last season when Swearinger’s one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit forced Gurley to start against Missouri. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward thinks Gurley and Marcus will be good fits for strong safety because they are physical and can play closer to the line. Williams is USC’s most experienced safety, a trait that helps any free safety, but can he have a commanding presence like Swearinger did?
3. Mike Davis or Brandon Wilds?
The top two candidates to replace Lattimore are both sophomores. Lattimore’s 2011 knee injury forced Wilds into action as a true freshman. Wilds redshirted last year. Lattimore’s 2012 knee injury pressed Davis into duty as a true freshman. Davis was a much higher-regarded recruit, though that doesn’t matter now. Both players have good bulk (Davis is 215 pounds, Wilds 223). But Wilds is 6-2 — five inches taller than Davis — and Davis is the faster of the two. Davis emerged from spring atop the depth chart.
“There wasn’t much difference,” said running backs coach Everette Sands. “It’s just that, at the end, Mike was making a few more plays than Brandon. Not that Brandon’s not making plays. Mike just made a few more, so that gave him a little edge. Both of them I expect to be heavily in the mix (during preseason practices).”
4. How will the offensive line adjust to changes?
On the surface, there don’t seem to be many. The only new starter is redshirt freshman center Cody Waldrop, which is no small change from T.J. Johnson, a three-year starting center.
But Davis and Wilds are different backs, and the Gamecocks could rotate quarterbacks Connor Shaw (who can scramble) and Dylan Thompson (more of a pocket passer). So Shawn Elliott’s line will have to be flexible.
“Certainly, there’s a difference in backs, of course,” Elliott said. “Some backs can be a jump cutter. Some backs can be a power run type guy. That dictates a little bit how you block it and what plays you run.”
Waldrop struggled some in the spring with snapping, but Elliott saw him iron out those issues.
“I think he snaps a catchable ball,” Elliott said. “I’m not all concerned with his snaps. Now, I could be dead wrong. But from that standpoint, I think he’s doing fine.”
5. Will Gamecocks play both quarterbacks?
Don’t expect coach and play-caller Steve Spurrier to reveal much about this during the preseason. He has said there’s a chance Shaw and Thompson both play. He also said Shaw remains the starter. Spurrier has thrown around the possibility of both being in the backfield at the same time, in the shotgun formation, or Shaw lining up wide and Thompson throwing to him.
While USC will no doubt try to nail down more of a precise plan in the coming days and weeks, how the Shaw/Thompson dynamic truly works won’t be known until the Gamecocks kick off the season Aug. 29 against North Carolina. And, of course, there’s always a chance that Spurrier opts to play Shaw for all of that game. As with the USC-Clemson game and the Heisman ceremony, Aug. 29 is still too far off in the future to know for sure.