2015 CFB Preview – South Carolina

    South Carolina GamecocksGo to Team Page GamecocksGo to Selection Page           Steve Spurrier is a young-looking, feisty 70, but

    July 1, 2015

    South Carolina
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    Steve Spurrier is a young-looking, feisty 70, but he is 70.

    By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

    He might seem like he could coach for another ten years, but now there needs to be a sense of urgency.

    South Carolina is a much, much different program now than it was when he took over in 2005, and it’s light years ahead of where it was 20 years ago – when it was basically Vanderbilt’s soulmate in terms of production and history. Whenever Spurrier is done, it’ll be the plum job openings of plum job openings, and that’s mainly because of everything that’s happened over the last ten years.

    This has been the greatest decade in the history of Gamecock football by about a bazillon miles, but at the same time, the program needs to get to Point C.

    Welcome to the club in the SEC East, where Georgia has been knocking on the door of being truly amazing for forever under Mark Richt, Tennessee has been a year away from being among the elite for at least five years running, and Florida can’t get past being spoiled over the last 25 years by two of the greatest coaches in college football history – and no, Ron Zook isn’t one of them.

    Considering coming up with winning seasons on a consistent basis is still a relatively new concept in Columbia, it’s impossible to argue with nine in the last ten years and three straight 11-win campaigns before last season’s 7-6 setback.

    But again, if something truly big is going to happen on Spurrier’s watch, this needs to be the season.

    The SEC East isn’t the SEC West, and while it’s been the little brother over the last few years, if Missouri can win it twice in a row, then South Carolina – who was right there in the hunt two seasons ago – should be able to come up with just the right mix to get to Atlanta for a shot at the SEC championship for the first time since 2010.

    But first, Spurrier has to pull up out of the nosedive that led to a season with four fewer wins than 2013.

    The pass rush was supposed to take a hit, but it really, really struggled, as did the run defense that never seemed able to get physical when it had to. The offense was more than fine, but it couldn’t keep up the pace when games started to get out of hand because of the D.

    Texas A&M looked like it had its tickets booked for the playoff after its August 52-28 domination. Kentucky hung 45 on the board, Tennessee put up 45 in an overtime win, and Clemson didn’t have too many problems moving the ball.

    And Vanderbilt – the offense that did absolutely nothing all season long – came up with 34 points in a loss. To be fair, 14 of the points came off of kickoff returns, but the defense still gave up 379 yards.

    This year, though, the JUCO ranks are helping to beef up an already veteran defense. There’s talent and size up front, but everyone has to be tougher and play far better. The offense will always crank up numbers on Spurrier’s watch, but it needs to be better against the elite teams.

    Is this the best South Carolina team in the Ball Coach’s era? No, but it still might be good enough to take the SEC championship if everything goes right.

    What You Need To Know About The Offense: Only four starters are back, but the offense should be fine because Steve Spurrier’s offenses are always fine. Even so, can the backfield find the right replacements? It’s not like the Gamecocks are losing Tom Brady at quarterback, but the situation isn’t 100% settled – it never really is under Spurrier. The ground game loses an all-around playmaker in Mike Davis, but Brandon Wilds is a good next-back-up. The line has bulk and talent, but it’s losing some key parts to what was one of the best front fives of the Ball Coach era. Even with all the concerns, the O will get the job done.

    What You Need To Know About The Defense: After a disastrous season against the run and without any pass rush, there’s hope for a massive instant improvement. Nine starters return and coordinator Jon Hoke comes in to get things back to normal. The D will work out of more of a 4-3 alignment, and it starts with two massive 325 tackles trying to gum things up inside. The linebackers should be solid with Skai Moore leading the way, and there’s potential in the secondary to be far more consistent. Expect a more aggressive, disruptive group.

    What to watch for on offense: How quickly will the backfield emerge? With all due respect to Connor Shaw – a baller of a college quarterback – Spurrier has never really had a truly special passer at South Carolina. He still doesn’t. Connor Mitch is a good one, and there are other interesting options to play around with, but the Gamecock starting quarterback is going to be solid more than spectacular. Mike Davis was a very good, very productive running back who wasn’t quite 100% right throughout last year, and now it’s up to Brandon Wilds to lead a new pack. If the defense is better, the offense won’t have to press as much as it did last year – at least that’s the hope – and the backfield can ease its way into the season.

    What to watch for on defense: Welcome in, Jon Hoke. A pro assistant who was part of the fun at Florida under Spurrier, Hoke comes in to try to fix the glitch as a co-defensive coordinator who’ll ramp things up a bit. The Jadeveon-less pass rush came up with just 14 sacks last season compared to 25 in 2013 and 43 in 2012, but the pieces are there to get back to a high level in a hurry. Nine starters return to go along with JUCO superstar Marquavius Lewis at defensive end in the 4-3 scheme, so there should be more consistency, there should be more disruption, and there should be more production.

    The team will be far better if … the return game is stronger. The defense will come around. Hoke will find ways to get his defense into the backfield, and the front seven should be far stronger against the run. Little problems can occasionally turn into big issues in the tight SEC battles, and the inability to come up with big returns hurt. The Gamecocks averaged just five yards per punt return after averaging 3.77 yards per pop in 2013. The kickoff return game has been lousy for the last few years, too, while the kick coverage allowed two touchdowns – both against Vanderbilt.

    The schedule: Gone is the opener against a nasty SEC foe, and in comes a decent non-conference game against North Carolina. However, it’ll be played in Charlotte, and it’s followed up by East battles with Kentucky and Georgia.
    – Considering UCF should be one of the American Athletic stars, the non-conference schedule is strong. Along with the Knights and the opener against UNC, there’s the regular-season ender against Clemson at home. Playing The Citadel helps.
    – After starting out the SEC season against Kentucky, four of the next six conference games are on the road including brutal East dates at Georgia and Missouri. Going to Texas A&M and following it up with a trip to Tennessee isn’t a plus, either.
    – The big break after all the road games is the second half of November, closing out with three straight home games against Florida, The Citadel and Clemson.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … LSU. It’s bad enough to play the Tigers, and while the game is at home, the showdown comes after dealing with Missouri on the road.

    Best offensive player: Junior WR Pharoh Cooper. The South Carolina receiving corps did a decent job at times throughout last season, but it’s going to take a little bit before the playmakers emerge, hoping for Alshon Jeffery’s brother, Shamier, to be ready to takeoff, while Deebo Samuel is a promising option. It’s Cooper’s receiving corps, though, as the team’s leading receiver coming off a tremendous year. There’s no question who the No. 1 target is, but if the supporting cast can rise up, all of a sudden the passing game could be special.

    Best defensive player: Junior LB Skai Moore. The do-it-all linebacker held up well in the middle, even if he’s not built for the gig at just 218 pounds. The Gamecocks will still use a little bit of the 4-2-5 defensive style of last year, but in the 4-3, Moore is the better fit on the outside where he can use his speed and range to be dangerous in pass coverage and get into the backfield more. No matter where he works, he’ll be one of the team’s leading tacklers and a reliable factor in the open field.

    Key player to a successful season: Junior DE Marquavius Lewis. No pressure, new guy. Just become a devastating pass rusher right out of the box. Despite the poor production of last year, the Gamecocks have options to get into the backfield a bit more, but they need someone who can really, really scare quarterbacks. Lewis is a NFL caliber pass rusher with the right size, quickness, and closing ability to the quarterback. The star JUCO transfer should be an instant fix – at least that’s the plan.

    The season will be a success if … South Carolina wins the East. Missing Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas – yeah, this year, you want to miss Arkansas – really helps. However, going to Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee might make it too tough to take the division title. Whatever. South Carolina has never been afraid to come up with big road wins under Spurrier. With nine starters back on defense, and decent replacements for a rebounding offense, at this point, anything other than a division title will feel like a massive disappointment.

    Key game: Sept. 19 at Georgia. South Carolina hasn’t done a great job out of the gate in SEC play. Last year the Gamecocks got pantsed by Texas A&M at home to open the season, and two years ago they lost to Georgia in Athens. To be fair, they won the previous three conference openers after starting out the 2009 season with a loss at Georgia, but with a trip to Missouri and a home date with LSU to follow in conference action, they need to beat the Dawgs.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Fourth Down Conversions: Opponents 10-of-12 (83%) – South Carolina 12-of-22 (55%)
    – South Carolina 2014 Sacks: 14 for 120 yards – 2012 Sacks: 43 for 275 yards
    – Average Yards Per Carry: Opponents 5.4 – South Carolina 4.4

    Players You Need To Know

    1. WR Pharoh Cooper, Jr.
    The all-star do-it-all playmaker led the team with 69 catches for 1,136 yards and nine scores, averaging 16.5 yards per catch, ran for 200 yards and two scores, and served as the primary punt returner at times. With good size, the 5-11, 208-pounder is built like a running back, but he’s lightning quick and does big things whenever he has the ball in his hands. He destroyed Tennessee for 233 yards and two scores on 11 catches, and had a ten grab day against Vanderbilt, and now there’s no question who the No. 1 target is. The coaching staff will keep on inventing ways to get the ball in his hands.

    2. LB Skai Moore, Jr.
    A good recruit, he turned into a great producer as a true freshman getting four starts and seeing time at every game making a team-leading 56 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss and four picks. Last season he took his game to a whole other level, leading the team with 93 tackles with a sack, but he also made big plays when the ball was in the air with three picks. At 6-2 and 218 pounds he’s not big in the middle, and is more natural on the weakside. He can fly around the ball and become even more of a terror in pass coverage, picking off six passes in his first two years. A steady tackler throughout the season, he should be one of the SEC’s top all-around defenders again.

    3. SS T.J. Gurley, Sr.
    Second on the team in tackles, the 5-10, 199-pound strong safety came up with 80 tackles with a pick and four broken up passes. While he still has to do more when the ball is in the air, this is his secondary as one of the team’s leaders in all ways. Very smart, very tough, he’s always getting around the ball as a steady, consistent playmaker. Athletic enough to be a corner if needed, he found his role as a safety and should be in the hunt for all-star honors. At the very least, he’ll be one of the team’s top tacklers.

    4. RB Brandon Wilds, Sr.
    The No. 2 man in the mix over the last few years is now the main back with Mike Davis done. A tall, tough back, he’s 6-2, 224 pounds and brings some good power on the inside to go along with decent hands. He sat out all of 2012 to keep his eligibility, and missed most of 2013 with a dislocated elbow. Last year he finished second on the team with 570 yards and four score and caught 18 passes with a score. Quick to go along with good strength and power, he ripped up Tennessee for 143 yards and two scores on eight carries – he owns the Vols, running for 137 against them in 2011 – and now he gets to show what he can do full-time.

    5. DE Gerald Dixon, Jr.
    While he’s not built like a top-shelf pass rusher, the 6-2, 276-pound end can get into the backfield and make things happen. He hasn’t been a dominant sacker, but he came up with two last year while doing his job at times against the run with 42 tackles. He’s not going to fly around, but going into his third year up front, he’ll be like an extra tackle at times as a big body on the outside. He knows what he’s doing.

    6. OT Brandon Shell, Sr.
    Able to work in the 330s, he slimmed down and got to 327 pounds on his 6-6 frame. Now he’s the team’s elder statesmen up front once he gets over a shoulder problem. An NFL-caliber blocker, he’ll end up getting paid someday as a guard, but for now he’ll hold his own as one of the SEC’s top right tackles. A huge recruit a few years ago – literally – he’s a good athlete considering his bulk and could be tried out on the left side if needed.

    7. DE Marquavius Lewis, Jr.
    The nation’s No. 1 JUCO transfer, he’s being asked to instantly bump up the woeful pass rush after ripping it up for Hutchinson CC. He came up with 11 sacks and 20 tackles for loss at the lower level, but he was in the quarterback’s face more than that. At 6-3 and 266 pounds he has NFL size, a fast first step, and the upside to step on the field from Day One and dominate. Auburn wanted him, but now he could take the Gamecock defensive front to another level.

    8. LB Jordan Diggs, Jr.
    Smallish at 6-0 and 210 pounds, he can move as a combination safety and linebacker. While he works as the team’s hybrid Spur spot, he’ll be more of a linebacker in the move from the 4-2-5 to the 4-3. Very smart on and off the field, he always seems to be around the ball with good toughness and dependability making 37 tackles last season with two sacks and five tackles for loss. While he didn’t come up with any huge games, and he didn’t pick off any passes, that’s not really his game. He’s simply a solid baller.

    9. QB Connor Mitch, Soph.
    Is it really going to be Mitch under center? Is it going to be Perry Orth? Will Michael Scarnecchia get a shot? It’s South Carolina and it’s Steve Spurrier, so all the options might see time this year, but it’s Mitch with the biggest upside with 6-3, 220 pound size and a live arm. A pure pro-style quarterback, he had his choice of top SEC schools, and now there’s a chance he could be the most talented passer Spurrier has had in Columbia. At the very least, in time, he’ll be an upgrade over last year’s starter, Dylan Thompson.

    10. DT Gerald Dixon, Jr., Sr.
    The 6-3, 325-pound veteran has to be more of a rock on the inside. He has the NFL size, he has the bulk, and he has the experience, but now he has to turn into a big-time run stuffer in the mix of 300+ pound inside presences. He’s quick off the ball, blocking two kicks last season, but he didn’t get into the backfield enough with a sack and two tackles for loss. He’s not going to put up huge numbers – coming up with just 29 tackles last season – it’ll be his job to try gumming up the works to let everyone else produce.

    Head Coach: Steve Spurrier
    11th year: 84-45
    26th year overall: 226-85-2
    Schedule
    Sept. 3 North Carolina (in Charlotte)
    Sept. 12 Kentucky
    Sept. 19 at Georgia
    Sept. 26 UCF
    Oct. 3 at Missouri
    Oct. 10 LSU
    Oct. 17 Vanderbilt
    Oct. 24 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 31 at Texas A&M
    Nov. 7 at Tennessee
    Nov. 14 Florida
    Nov. 21 The Citadel
    Nov. 28 Clemson
    Ten Best South Carolina Players
    1. WR Pharoh Cooper, Jr.
    2. LB Skai Moore, Jr.
    3. SS T.J. Gurley, Sr.
    4. RB Brandon Wilds, Sr.
    5. DE Gerald Dixon, Jr.
    6. OT Brandon Shell, Sr.
    7. DE Marquavius Lewis, Jr.
    8. LB Jordan Diggs, Jr.
    9. QB Connor Mitch, Soph.
    10. DT Gerald Dixon, Jr., Sr.

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