COLUMBIA — Carlton Heard may be responsible for the blocked punt at Florida which helped save South Carolina’s 2014 football season, but the senior receiver would prefer to be known for something else
“As a receiver, I want to be known as a guy who catches passes out there,” he said after the Gamecocks wrapped up spring practice Thursday. “Catching touchdowns, making plays.”
There’s certainly an opportunity for that this season, given the dearth of proven pass-catchers below star wideout Pharoh Cooper. Redshirt Deebo Samuel has earned praise from coaches and Shamier Jeffery is trying to make the most of senior season, but the bulk of South Carolina’s 2015 receiving corps could well be comprised of players like Heard — transfers, walk-ons and newcomers all hoping to fill the void left by the departures of Shaq Roland and K.J. Brent, and the graduation of Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd.
“They’re looking for a guy who can step up and take the pressure off Pharoh,” said junior walk-on Matrick Belton. “And I’d definitely like to show them I’m one of those guys. It’s wide open. He’s the only one who’s really caught balls in the past seasons. So it’s open, got to go get it.”
Cooper caught 69 passes last season, and the Gamecocks’ second-most productive returning receiver is Jeffery — who caught two.
Of the 10 players listed at receiver on South Carolina’s spring depth chart, eight of them have never caught a pass at USC. No position in spring camp is more wide open, or more susceptible to a relative unknown breaking through.
“It’s like Pharoh tells us, everyone can play,” said redshirt freshman Terry Googer. “So that’s what we’re trying to prove to coaches, that everyone can play.”
Googer didn’t even play receiver his senior year at Atlanta’s Woodward Academy. He was a quarterback who threw for 967 yards and 10 touchdowns, and ran for 1,116 yards and 16 more scores. Googer received offers to play quarterback from Boston College and Syracuse, but came to USC even though it entailed a change of position.
“I just tried my best to stay afterward and learn all the things I had to learn — how to get open, running routes, and all that,” he said. “At first I was kind of shaky, but I adjusted pretty well.”
Googer isn’t as fast as some receivers, “but he’s big, and he can play to that,” receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said. “Every time he runs around, the guy’s kind of all over him, and he catches the ball, and there’s value in that. He’s catching the ball with people all over him. He needs to get open more, but when the ball’s in the air, he’s doing a really good job with it.”
Also in the mix is Heard, a special-teamer last year who caught 31 passes for 442 yards in one season at Gardner-Webb. The Athens, Ga., native walked on in 2013, and earned a scholarship during a 2014 campaign where his blocked punt at Florida helped USC secure bowl eligibility.
Now he’d like to make an impact at receiver. “Right now, everybody is trying to figure out where they fit it, and trying to learn the plays,” Heard said. “I guess at the end of the day, whoever can learn the pays, line up, and everything is going to get the job.”
Trying to follow Heard’s lead is Belton, a Columbia native who played six games at Hampton before walking on at USC. “I was there for one and a half years, and had three different offensive coordinators. It wasn’t really a stable program,” he said. “But I’m from here. I went to W.J. Keenan High School. This is home. This is where I wanted to go from high school. I took a leap of faith, and ended up here.”
Now he’s trying to earn a scholarship, as Heard did last season. “He’s opened a path for someone like me,” Belton said. Being a walk-on “is definitely a chip on my shoulder,” he added. “When I’m tired, I say, ‘Man, I’m not only working for a position, I’m working for money and for life later on down the line.’ So it’s definitely a chip on my shoulder.”
Now it’s a matter of turning that into performance on the field, and contending for the two open receiver spots at USC. Head coach Steve Spurrier said he expects most of his receiver candidates to work on catching balls throughout the summer, and for positions to be firmed up in preseason camp.
“There’s a big opportunity for all these guys,” said Spurrier Jr. “(Googer) is certainly a guy who can play. Carlton Heard’s done a good job, he really has. I’ve been impressed with him. Everybody that’s out here has got a chance.”
Clayton Stadnik’s transition from center to tight end hit a hiccup in the form of a sprained MCL suffered in Saturday’s scrimmage. Stadnik lost a lot of weight after having his tonsils removed Dec. 31, and coaches converted him into a blocking tight end like Cody Gibson played last season. Stadnik, who caught his first pass in the scrimmage before suffering the injury, was unsure Thursday if he’d return this spring.
Although Connor Mitch is listed as No. 1 for the spring, USC’s quarterback competition seems likely to extend into the preseason, when freshman Lorenzo Nunez will be on campus. A starter isn’t likely to be named until “probably first week, second week before we play North Carolina, unless another quarterback steps forward and completely outplays the others,” Steve Spurrier said. “Just keep them all competing.”
USC has released the format for the April 11 spring game, which will consist of four 12-minute quarters, with the clock stopping during the first half and running through the second. At halftime, Spurrier will present spring awards and recognize players from the past decade as part of a reunion weekend.
The exhibition will begin at noon, with gates opening at 10:30 a.m. Due to ongoing construction around Williams-Brice Stadium, only the west stands (adjacent to Bluff Road) and north stands (adjacent to George Rogers Boulevard) will be accessible to the public.
Spurrier called into Dan Patrick’s radio program Thursday, when musician and USC fan Darius Rucker was a guest. “Steven in Columbia” phoned in, and it took a minute for Rucker — Gamecocks cap on his head, as always — to realize who it was. “Is that the Ball Coach?” the Charleston native asked. Rucker and Spurrier chatted briefly about music and the USC women’s basketball team, with Rucker promising to play a free concert in Columbia should the Gamecocks win the national title.
Spurrier is heading to Tampa, Fla., to watch the USC women play in the Final Four. Should USC beat Notre Dame on Sunday and advance to Tuesday’s national title game, Spurrier said he’d move that day’s scheduled practice. “We’ve got three practices next week, so we could always go Thursday, Friday, Saturday if we needed to,” he said. “... If we’re victorious, we’ll probably cancel Tuesday.”