COLUMBIA - After seven long months, the offseason - better known as "talking season" around these parts - finally ends when South Carolina has its first fall practice Friday evening.
There are just 28 days until the Gamecocks open the 2014 college football season against Texas A&M at Williams-Brice Stadium. South Carolina will have 25 practices - including two scrimmages - before the Aggies come to town. It may seem like plenty of time, but August days pass by quickly.
The Gamecocks have a lot of work to do before they take the field against another team. After a relatively uneventful spring practice session, fall camp is sure to offer more intrigue. Here are five storylines to watch over the next four weeks as USC prepares for what is expected to be another big season:
1. Starting cornerback
There was a time when top-shelf cornerbacks weren't as much of a pressing need. In the 1990s and earlier, back when "three yards and a cloud of dust" reigned supreme in college football, defenses were rightfully more concerned with stacking their interior.
College football has changed a lot over the past decade, and that evolution has made cornerback one of the most important positions on the field. Enter South Carolina's 2014 dilemma. The Gamecocks spent their offseason unsure who would be their starting cornerbacks, while also knowing true freshmen would likely play critical roles. Two of those freshmen - Wesley Green and Chris Lammons - are expected to finally arrive on campus this week. That doesn't leave much time for youngsters fresh off high school fields to learn how to cover SEC-caliber receivers.
2. Thompson's backup
When South Carolina exited spring practices, the gap between starting quarterback Dylan Thompson and his potential backups was vast. In recent years, Thompson gave coaches peace of mind as Connor Shaw's backup. If Shaw was unable to play because of injury, Thompson ensured there wouldn't be a massive drop in production from the quarterback position.
Thompson quickly earned the starting job to replace Shaw this offseason, and locking down the starting spot is always most important. For additional peace of mind, Thompson's backups must improve a lot over the next few weeks. It'll be interesting to see who steps up and grabs the No. 2 quarterback spot. Candidates entering the fall include Connor Mitch, Brendan Nosovitch and Perry Orth, while freshman Michael Scarnecchia has also joins the fold.
3. Returning from injury
South Carolina was unable to get through spring practices unscathed. Its two most prominent spring injuries were tight end Rory Anderson's torn triceps muscle and running back Shon Carson's shoulder injury. Both players are on schedule to return for the season, but it'll be hard to really tell their progress until they return to the practice field.
Also, senior receiver Damiere Byrd missed much of the spring while recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL. Offseason reports indicate Byrd regained his top-notch speed, a good sign for South Carolina's offense.
4. Edge rushing
Nobody will replace the presence Jadeveon Clowney had on South Carolina's defensive line last season, but his raw production - most specifically, his three sacks - could be imitated. At the heart of the Gamecocks' recent success has been a dominant defensive line. South Carolina only returns one starter from last season's defensive front - senior tackle J.T. Surratt - but it should be fine on the interior. The key will be whether defensive ends Gerald Dixon and Darius English can provide pressure off the edge, something that has been a staple of USC's defense.
5. No weak links
By all accounts, South Carolina will have its best offensive line of the Steve Spurrier era this fall. With four returning starters, the Gamecocks could have one of the best units in the SEC, if not the entire country. A lot of pressure will be on fourth-year junior Mike Matulis, who replaces Ronald Patrick at right guard. If Matulis can avoid being a weak link, a special group will pave the way for South Carolina's offense this season.