Five football storylines: USC in search of spring solutions

Posted by JOSH KENDALL on March 1, 2014 

Junior wide receiver Shaq Roland is looking to become a go-to target for quarterback Dylan Thompson.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

Top QB, running back roles appear settled, but cornerback spots are wide open

The follow-up to three straight 11-win seasons begins Tuesday for South Carolina, as Steve Spurrier and his football team return to the field for the opening of spring practice.

The Gamecocks have 15 practices scheduled, concluding with the Garnet and Black Spring Game at noon on April 12 in Williams-Brice Stadium. Here are five story lines:

QB ONE

There won’t be a quarterback competition this spring, according to Spurrier. Senior Dylan Thompson is taking the reins after two seasons as Connor Shaw’s sidekick, the coach has said emphatically. Still, even Thompson doesn’t think that proclamation is carved in granite. “I know who coach Spurrier is,” Thompson said. “You have to earn everything you get around here, and I love it.”

Thompson is 120-of-218 for 1,827 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in his collegiate career. His goal for the spring and next fall is consistency, he said.

“I don’t want to be a guy who has a 10-for-31 game and then comes out and goes 28-for-31,” he said. “I want to be that even-keel kind of guy that you know what you are getting every Saturday.”

BOOKEND BATTLE

Defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton are off to chase NFL dreams. The competition to replace them starts with junior Gerald Dixon, who had become part of a regular rotation with Sutton by the end of the 2013 season and might have taken Sutton’s job if not for seniority. After that, it could be a race between athletic but skinny ends Mason Harris and Darius English – first one to 260 pounds gets the starting job.

The wild card is junior Cedrick Cooper, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder who has impressed with his athleticism for two seasons but never could find a toehold in the linebacker rotation. Cooper has been moved to end, where the Gamecocks hope they can get something out of his gifts.

EMPTY ISLANDS

End is not the only edge spot where the defense has issues. Both starting cornerbacks have departed, and there’s even less depth at that position than at end.

Secondary coach Grady Brown joked last fall that the 2014 cornerbacks were playing high school football at the time. He might be proven right (the signing class included six players who could make waves at defensive back in the fall), but that doesn’t help this spring as one of this year’s recruiting class (JUCO defensive lineman Abu Lamin) enrolled early enough to participate.

Rico McWilliams, Ronnie Martin and Ali Groves would be well-served to use these 15 practices to solidify a spot in Brown’s heart before the freshmen arrive on campus.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL, THEN WHO?

Junior running back Mike Davis probably will have a light workload this spring. Spurrier traditionally lets his proven stars save their body in March and April, and Davis’ 2013 season increases those chances. After tearing through the first two-thirds of the season, he slowed down the stretch due to nagging shoulder, ankle and knee injuries. He’s in no danger of losing the top running back job and probably in no danger of getting more than a light bruise this spring.

Behind Davis, there is a lot of talent to be assessed. Bruiser Brandon Wilds and speedy Shon Carson ended the 2013 season essentially as co-Nos. 2. Redshirt freshman David Williams, a former four-star recruit, is being added to the bench.

The toll the position took on Davis (and everyone else who plays it in the SEC) is proof South Carolina needs more than one running back, and probably more than two, to get through 2014 smoothly.

THE SPRING OF SHAQ?

Junior wide receiver Shaq Roland had an up-and-down 2013, but it ended on an up note. If the Lexington native can stay motivated during the dog days of spring and summer, he could set himself up for the best season by a Gamecock wide receiver since Alshon Jeffery was in town. Roland, 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, is the most gifted pass catcher on the team and could give Thompson a go-to target in 2014.

Senior speedster Damiere Byrd is recovering from a knee injury suffered in bowl practices and probably will be a part-time participant in spring drills. Like Davis, Byrd likely will be saved for the fall when the Gamecocks start keeping score.

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