Waldrop at center of talented USC offense

South Carolina went 11-2 in each of the past two seasons despite its offense ranking 73rd and 84th nationally in yards per game. So it is foolhardy to say the Gamecocks must move the ball better in 2013 if they want to replicate that success.

But might the offense actually improve this season even with the departure of program- changing running back Marcus Lattimore? Mid-March is far too early to definitively answer that question. But the Gamecocks certainly return important offensive pieces.

Highly regarded recruit Mike Davis replaces Lattimore after getting 52 carries as a true freshman. If Davis can continue to improve his pass protection, he could shine.

Last year’s leader in catches and touchdown receptions, Ace Sanders, turned pro early. But Bruce Ellington returns, and he had just five fewer catches and two fewer touchdowns than Sanders while leading USC with 600 yards.

Tight end Justice Cunningham is also gone. He had 41 catches for 466 yards and a touchdown over the past two seasons. The new top tight end, Rory Anderson, had 22 catches for 459 yards and eight touchdowns in that span. So that’s not a major dropoff.

Yes, South Carolina does need to find a receiver or two to complement Ellington, likely from the group of Shaq Roland, Shamier Jeffery, Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones. That is no small task. But whoever plays quarterback this fall — Connor Shaw, Dylan Thompson or both — will have at least some proven assets available, with Davis, Ellington and Anderson.

That leaves only the most important but often overlooked part of the game — snapping the ball.

The Gamecocks lost T.J. Johnson, who started all 53 games of his career, a school record. He was the starting center for his final three seasons after moving from right guard. With all of USC’s other offensive linemen returning, the new center, redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop, sticks out as perhaps the Gamecocks’ most notable new starter during spring practices.

Waldrop played center as a high school freshman, but was a guard after that. Coming out of high school in Seffner, Fla., he was ranked the nation’s No. 16 guard by Rivals. He played some center last fall in practice, but mostly guard. So he said his main adjustment to center this spring hasn’t been identifying the defensive fronts — an important duty for the center that he said he performs well — but rather, just snapping the ball. Because it is not as easy as it sounds.

His problem has been snapping the ball too hard, and offensive line coach Shawn Elliott has worked with him on slowing down the speed of his snap and to focus on its accuracy.

“That’s the biggest adjustment so far,” Waldrop said. “It’s all about touch, knowing where your hand is going to hit every time you snap the ball. It’s a lot of stuff going on there.”

When Elliott arrived three years ago, he went through similar transitions with Johnson as he moved from guard to center. In this morning’s first spring scrimmage, Elliott is looking forward to seeing how Waldrop handles these issues in a game-like setting.

“I think Cody’s snaps are something I’m going to be really focusing on,” Elliott said, “and how he kind of controls the line of scrimmage and makes calls without me standing behind him and saying, ‘All right, Cody, you’ve got to do this. Come back here and let me show you what you just messed up.’ When I’m off the field, I want to see how he handles things.

“(The snap) is the most important thing anybody does on the football field. It starts every motion. And he’s going to get better at it. His problem right now is he’s so anxious to snap the football as quick as possible and get to blocking. That just comes with time. I’m pleased with him as far as assignments and (knowing) what to do (with identifying defensive fronts).”

If Waldrop ever needs help, he has A.J. Cann to his left and Ronald Patrick to his right. Cann started the past two seasons at left guard. Patrick debuted at right guard last season.

“Sometimes, when I lose my mind and can’t figure out where to go, I ask them and they tell me,” Waldrop said. “They know exactly what’s going on before I even make the call.”