COLUMBIA - Grady Brown remembers when he was an assistant at Southern Mississippi, and Kevin Sumlin was head coach at the University of Houston. It didn't matter which names filled the Cougars' skill position slots - when the two teams met, Brown knew what to prepare for.
"Whether it was Case Keenum, it didn't matter who was at quarterback. It didn't matter who was at receiver," said Brown, now South Carolina's secondary coach. "Everyone could throw the ball, everyone was fast, everyone knew what to do. So you've just got to do out and practice well and get ready to play."
That mindset will likely remain unchanged heading into Thursday night, when the ninth-ranked Gamecocks meet Sumlin's current team, Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who helped the Aggies become an immediate force in the SEC, is off to the NFL. Also gone are three of the four 50-catch receivers who helped make Manziel so dangerous. The offense coming to Columbia will be run by a sophomore quarterback with 22 pass attempts at the college level, and a receiving corps comprised primarily of underclassmen.
But South Carolina is under no illusion as to what to expect Thursday, given that Sumlin's offenses have traditionally gained most of their yards through the air - regardless of who is behind center. Since shifting to a no-huddle offense in 2009, the Aggies have ranked in the top 25 nationally in passing and total offense every season. Texas A&M has broken its average and total passing records in four of the last five seasons and Manziel wasn't around for all of them. So yeah, expect the Aggies to fling it around.
And they'll be doing it against a South Carolina secondary that is replacing both its starting cornerbacks from a year ago, Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree - who ranked fourth and second, respectively, in total tackles. The Gamecocks' depth chart has senior Brison Williams and freshman Al Harris Jr. in those positions, with Chris Moody and Chaz Elder holding down the safety spots.
But expect more than just those four to play Thursday night. Harris and sophomore Rico McWilliams are "really close" for one corner spot, said Brown, who expects both to see action against the Aggies. Moody and McWilliams, he added, have both been pleasant surprises during preseason camp.
"Those guys are both in their third year in the program, and neither one of them played a whole lot last year, so as a coach you kind of look at it and say, 'Well, it's about time for those guys to contribute.' And both of them came out in fall camp and did a really good job," Brown said. "There's a lot of competition right now in the secondary to get on the field before that first play. But I like to talk to the guys and tell them it's not about who starts the game, it's about who finishes the game, who plays the most plays."
A few other items of note ..
-- Although head coach Steve Spurrier said in his Sunday news conference that he hoped star running back Mike Davis would be back to 100 percent before Thursday's opener, the junior remains in a regular jersey - as opposed to yellow non-contact - this week in practice. Davis missed some time due to bruised ribs, but made his intentions clear in a Twitter post: "Y'all really think I'm going to miss the first game?"
Davis' 1,183 yards last season was the fourth-best single-season mark in school history. Although South Carolina has the luxury of depth at running back with Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson also at the ready, Davis is a workhorse back who could take some of the load off quarterback Dylan Thompson, who is making his debut as full-time starter this season, and is decidedly less mobile than his predecessor, Connor Shaw.
-- Although Thompson is the no-doubt starter behind center, the backup quarterback role appears to be a dead heat between sophomore Perry Orth and redshirt freshman Connor Mitch. "It's still an 'or.' We're still coaching them up every day out there," Spurrier said. "We're hoping one of them will take a step forward and we can say, 'Hey, you're going in second if something happens.' Other than that, we'll wait and see how the game plays out if we need to send one in or not. Who knows? We may not have to for a while."
-- South Carolina will have a few streaks on the line against the 21st-ranked Aggies, among the Gamecocks' stiffer opening-day foes in some time. USC has won 14 straight openers dating back to a loss to North Carolina State in 1999. The Gamecocks' current 18-game home winning streak is the longest active streak in the nation. And Spurrier, going after his 200th SEC victory, has lost just one opener in his career as a head coach - ironically enough, to South Carolina, while the coach at Duke in 1989.
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