Why USC projects to be better minus stars

Fifth-year senior quarterback Dylan Thompson will have the best offensive line in USC history to protect him. (File/Aiken Standard)

Not so long ago, losing a starting quarterback, top pass rusher and leading receiver meant two choices for South Carolina football fans.

Tap out, or wait for a murky rebuilding process.

But check out the garnet sunrise coming up from the (SEC) East.

South Carolina - despite losing by far its best-ever quarterback, an extremely hyped No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft and a reliable pass-catcher from Moncks Corner - is picked to fare better in the Southeastern Conference in 2014 than in 2013.

With Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney and Bruce Ellington, the Gamecocks finished second in the SEC East. Without them, they are the division favorite.

Which makes formerly maligned South Carolina a playoff contender.

Such is the respect that comes with three straight 11-2 seasons, steady recruiting success and player development.

But there's more to it than that. South Carolina has potentially the best offensive line in school history and enough overall depth to allow for major strategy changes on offense and defense.

Head coach Steve Spurrier is cautious about "talking season," pointing out that summer predictions often look silly when it gets cold outside. He said he begged a prominent national media figure to pick Georgia to win the SEC East.

"But he went ahead and picked us anyway," Spurrier said Thursday at his annual media golf outing.

The Head Ball Coach is also confident enough in his roster to express surprise that the Gamecocks had zero players make the All-SEC first team in an SEC Media Days vote last week.

Except for strong safety Brison Williams on the third team, the Gamecocks were shut out on defense.

"We got one guy on three teams," Spurrier said. "We have to do a better job promoting these guys. (Linebacker) Skai Moore was the leading tackler and leading interceptor on the team and he didn't even make third team all-conference defense.

"Our guys can play some ball."

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward thinks so, too. Minus Clowney and fellow defensive linemen Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton and with more offenses picking up the pace, the Gamecocks must respond with added quickness.

Conveniently, they have the personnel to adjust.

"The strength of this defense is at linebacker," Ward said Thursday.

So expect more three-man fronts, Ward said, a departure from the 4-2-5 base alignment the Gamecocks have used since Ellis Johnson's days as defensive coordinator (2008-2011).

"Except against Georgia," Ward said. "Because of those running backs, we probably need four big guys up there."

Newness will be more obvious on offense.

Shaw rushed for 558 yards last season.

Fifth-year starter Dylan Thompson simply won't be running the same kind of zone-read attack, partly because South Carolina doesn't have an experienced backup quarterback and mostly because Thompson (66 yards on 55 career carries) isn't a hybrid vehicle.

No worries. Running back Mike Davis is capable of a Heisman Trophy run as a junior and the plan is to give a second ballcarrier plenty of work.

"Except for (Minnesota Vikings star) Adrian Peterson, you don't see many teams in college or the NFL try to get by with just one guy getting all the carries," said running backs coach Everette Sands, a former Citadel player and assistant coach.

The Gamecocks have Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson. Another candidate for that No. 2 spot is redshirt freshman David Williams, a 6-1, 214-pound Philadelphia native who turned down Ohio State, Auburn and Miami, among others. Williams is the Gamecocks' fastest running back (4.3 40).

"He's going to be good," Sands said. "He can run and he can catch. The only thing we haven't seen yet - and it's hard to tell until he plays in games - is the blocking."

Five weeks before the season opener against Texas A&M, the relatively unknown David Williams is just one of many talented reasons why the current Gamecocks are capable of moving on from the losses of Shaw, Clowney and Ellington.

And moving up.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff