COLUMBIA – Addition by subtraction?
That’s certainly the hope at South Carolina, where the football program has now seen five players leave the program since the end of the regular season. Junior receiver Shaq Roland, junior linebacker Kaiwan Lewis, junior defensive end Mason Harris, sophomore fullback Gerald Turner and sophomore defensive tackle Deon Green have all moved on, most of them with the stated goal of playing next season somewhere else.
With the exception of Roland, whose departure the week of the Independence Bowl leaves USC without a rising senior it could certainly use in a depleted receiving corps, this is all not exactly a surprise. Head coach Steve Spurrier said last week that some of his reserve players – particularly those soon to graduate, which will make them eligible immediately next season – were encouraged to transfer to other schools where they stand a better chance of seeing the field.
That would seem to make sense particularly in the context of a defense being overhauled for the 2015 season, and where some who played backup roles were likely to find themselves as odd men out. Take someone like Harris, who proved a key backup in a 2014 campaign where the defensive line was riddled with injuries. With so much junior college help on the way, backups for 2015 are almost certainly to be players who started games this past season, adding needed depth but also likely squeezing out some former reserves along the way.
Harris wrote on Twitter that his decision was a season in the making, and not influenced by a mid-year signing class in which seven of nine players compete on the defensive side of the ball. And while that very well may be the case, the result is the same – the influx of defensive help means competition will be fierce for defensive line and linebacker spots for 2015, to the point where some regular starters from last season may end up filling the reserve roles manned by the likes of Harris and Lewis in 2014.
And of course this all leaves USC with a little more flexibility in terms of available scholarships, which can’t hurt with National Signing Day now just a few weeks away. Clearly, the Gamecock defense – which ranked 13th in the SEC this past season – needed an across-the-board upgrade in both talent and depth, and the transfers and mid-year signees are the first steps in a rebuilding process crucial to USC’s hopes of improving on its 7-6 record of a season ago.
Now, that’s not to knock these outgoing guys as players. Turner was a Shrine Bowl defensive end at Goose Creek, but proved undersized for the position at South Carolina. That’s probably a recruiting error as much as anything, given that USC later tried to shoehorn him into a fullback role. Turner is now at Charleston Southern, where he’s once again on the defensive side of the ball, and could be a real standout on a Buccaneers team which ranked No. 1 in total defense last season in the Big South.
Same for Lewis, who ranked third on the team in tackles as a sophomore, but saw his playing time diminish as his junior campaign progressed and Jonathan Walton began to assert himself as a fixture in USC’s starting lineup. With Walton and Skai Moore returning, and mid-year signees Sherrod Pittman and Jalen Henry coming in, linebacker is suddenly a very crowded place to be. At 228 pounds, Lewis should be able to provide immediate help somewhere – but at South Carolina, he was one of those odd men out.
Roland, though, is a separate case. On a South Carolina team losing Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd, the rising senior would have been a great complement to All-American Pharoh Cooper, not to mention a help to likely first-year starting quarterback Connor Mitch. Although Roland never really lived up to his potential, that game-breaking ability always seemed right there below the surface, waiting to come out. But clearly he had his issues with the coaching staff, and now he’s reportedly bound for a small school somewhere, and as a result players like K.J. Brent and Shamier Jeffery are going to be asked to take a big step forward this coming season.
So is all this addition by subtraction? It certainly seems possible on defense, where coaches believe incoming players like end Marquavius Lewis, tackle Dexter Wideman and linebacker Pittman can provide immediate help. If they live up to billing, and can be combined with the best of USC’s returning players – guys like Moore, Walton, and end David Johnson – then suddenly you have a much deeper pool to pull from, and that’s before we get to National Singing Day. But then again, right now this is all in the abstract. Remember, everybody thought the 2014 defense stood a chance to be pretty good, too.
Meanwhile, South Carolina’s men’s basketball team continues to progress, although not quite as rapidly as a few weeks ago. The victory over Alabama on Tuesday night, ugly as it was, was the Gamecocks’ 10th of the season. They didn’t get to 10 victories last year until Feb. 15, and they haven’t won more than 14 games in coach Frank Martin’s tenure at the school. The coming few days are critical, given that they present (on paper, at least) winnable games which could put USC within range of matching last season’s victory total with over a month still remaining in the season.
Bruce Pearl may have raised expectations in his first season at Auburn, but in reality the Tigers are probably still a year away from being a real contender in the SEC. Tennessee may hold a Jedi mind lock over the Gamecocks, but in reality the Vols are a thin and inexperienced team which plays unevenly at best. Saturday’s game on the Plains and Tuesday’s contest against the Vols in Columbia offer a real chance for USC to get head above water in league play and build a little momentum toward one of its roughest stretches of the conference season.
The Gamecocks need to bank those Ws when they can, because late January and early February present a five-game slate that may well make or break USC’s hopes of making the postseason for the first time since Darrin Horn’s first team went to the 2009 NIT. Get past Auburn and Tennessee, and here’s what’s lying in wait: home vs. No. 1 Kentucky; at LSU, which looks like it’s bound for the NCAA tournament; home to dangerous Georgia, which has lost a number of close game to very good opponents; at Arkansas, maybe the second-best team in the SEC behind the Wildcats; and at Vanderbilt, which is defying preseason predictions and plays in one of the tougher home gyms in the league.
Winning two of those five games would be yeoman’s work for a Gamecocks squad whose offense has blinked in and out like electricity in a house with a faulty breaker box. That disaster at Ole Miss last weekend notwithstanding, USC’s defense is good enough to keep it in most games, and as we saw against Alabama, it often comes down to whether the Gamecocks can scrape together enough points to win. That matchup next Saturday against Kentucky looms as intriguing just for the clash of styles alone.
For USC, it is a little alarming that Duane Notice has been held to single-digit scoring in three straight games, and that Sindarius Thornwell suddenly looks so tentative with the basketball. The most reliable scorers on this team right now are Tyrone Johnson and Laimonas Chatkevicius, which certainly wasn’t the case a few weeks ago. Thornwell and Notice need to regain their strokes and bust the zones USC will face almost every night. Otherwise, get ready for more grinders like we saw against Alabama, or more performances like the one at Ole Miss – where the lights weren’t the only thing that went out.
COME AT THE KING ...
On the women’s side, that slugfest Thursday night at Missouri was likely a harbinger of what the top-ranked Gamecocks will face on every road trip – inventive defenses aimed at shutting down South Carolina’s strong post game, opponents which dare USC to take outside shots, and home teams that throw everything they have at the No. 1 team in America. On paper, there was no way Missouri should have been in that game – but they still managed to give the Gamecocks fits for almost 35 minutes.
USC is unbeaten against a good schedule and has more than earned its top ranking, but it can’t be overstated – the road between here and a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is a brutal one. At 17-0, the Gamecocks are an established No. 1 who are going to wear the target on their backs every time they step into a visiting arena. Some of those Missouri kids just played out of their minds, the Tigers got physical trying to bait USC into cheap shots, and it came down to the Gamecocks having to make free throws – not a strong suit – late.
Monday at Florida, another underperforming program which could jump-start its season in one night, may be more of the same. Then USC comes home to face No. 11 Texas A&M, one of six ranked opponents remaining on the Gamecocks’ schedule, including three of them to complete the regular season. Oh, and then there’s that little trip to Storrs, Conn., on Feb. 9. If Dawn Staley’s team can run that gauntlet and still be No. 1 on the other end of it – well, getting to the Final Four in Tampa may seem easy by comparison.