South Carolina conducted a 33-play scrimmage on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, which followed an extensive red-zone and goal-line session. What did we learn?
1. The Second-Team Defensive Line Is Far Ahead of The Second-Team Offensive Line: The scrimmage was essentially a Saturday version of Monday night football, the weekly clash pitting the young players against each other for 15 minutes or so. It was a mismatch from the very first snap because Shawn Elliott had an offensive line consisting mainly of true freshmen (Brandon Shell, Mike Matulis, Kyle Harris) and a walk-on center (Travis Ford) trying to block a defensive line with Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton, Kelcy Quarles, Byron Jerideau and others. Clowney was dominant in the latter stages of the scrimmage, taking advantage of his lightning-quick first step to get to the quarterback.
By this point, the only major question left about Clowney is whether he will perform at the same level on Sept. 3 against East Carolina. If he does, watch out. Meanwhile, depth on the offensive line is clearly a concern. Elliott has the starting five he is comfortable with (Kyle Nunn, A.J. Cann, T.J. Johnson, Terrence Campbell, Rokevious Watkins), but the backups are young and/or inexperienced. Simply, the O-line can't afford any significant injuries. Getting Kaleb Broome straightened out and Cody Gibson (kneecap) healthy would help. Six of the nine backup O-linemen are true or redshirt freshmen. Only three (Cann, Gibson, Ronald Patrick; Kenny Davis excluded because he used to play defense) have played in a real game.
2. The Shotgun Snap Is Too Inconsistent: When you're a center, you understand one bad shotgun snap can stick out like a sore thumb. It can also kill momentum. Yesterday, Andrew Clifford had just completed a 12-yard pass to K.J. Brent for the initial first down of the scrimmage when back-to-back errant snaps killed the momentum and eventually forced the offense into second-and-long and third-and-even-longer situations. Steve Spurrier was obviously displeased about it afterwards, but he has been concerned about it for a while. Even Johnson hasn't been immune from the hiccups. So, Spurrier is now requiring his centers to snap the ball 50 times each after practice in an effort to minimize the miscues.
3. The Free Safety Spot Needs Brison Williams: The absence of Williams, sidelined with a broken arm suffered over two weeks ago, has been felt by Ellis Johnson. Based on his comments on Saturday, he is hopeful Williams will be able to return to action in six to eight weeks, putting his anticipated return to active duty around mid-October. That might be enough to salvage his season without giving him a redshirt. If he comes back in time for the Oct. 29 game at Tennessee, that leaves five regular-season games, a possible appearance in the SEC Championship Game and a bowl game left on the schedule.
When he was injured, Williams was definitely making a run at Jimmy Legree for the starting job at free safety. The gap that existed at the start of camp was closing quickly. Johnson hopes Williams will be able to return to his former level and provide some much-needed depth at the spot. The lack of quality depth at both safety spots is Johnson's biggest concern on defense right now. He has confidence in D.J. Swearinger and Legree, but after that it's hit-or-miss.
4. Joey Scribner-Howard Is USC's Best Punter: The scrimmages this year are a little different than last year for one reason - instead of starting over with a fresh set of downs whenever a fourth-down situation came up, punters Joey Scribner-Howard and Patrick Fish have trotted onto the field and resumed their duel to determine who is the best. Based on the way they performed on Saturday as well as the previous scrimmage, Scribner-Howard is undoubtedly USC's best option at punter right now, even though Fish is the one on scholarship. Scribner-Howard has a very strong leg (he started 2010 as USC's kickoff specialist) but has been too inconsistent in the past. Maybe he is starting to find some consistency. If he does, he could be the punter in 2011 with Jay Wooten handling field goals, extra points and kickoffs. That duo has the potential to be a solid combination in the SEC.
5. The Young Receivers Continue To Shine: As much as the offense sputtered in Saturday's scrimmage, we saw confirmation that one or more true freshmen will contribute this season. Unless he nose-dives over the final 12 days of preseason camp, Damiere Byrd is a virtual lock for a spot in the six-man rotation. He had two receptions on Saturday, although in a change of pace, neither was a deep ball. One catch gained nine yards, the other 11 yards. Byrd again showed good hands. Brent had one reception for 12 yards, but also had a diving catch on a second-and-24 play ruled out of bounds. DeAngelo Smith also had a tumbling catch near the sideline. Meanwhile, Lamar Scruggs dropped a pass right into his chest on the first play of the third series.
Right now, the favorites to secure the six spots in the rotation remain the same - Alshon Jeffery, Jason Barnes, D.L. Moore, Bruce Ellington, Ace Sanders and Byrd. Smith and Brent are knocking on the door. Don't be surprised if either one cracks the top six by the end of the year. Scruggs may have taken a step back with his drop yesterday. Nick Jones and Shamier Jeffery have a ways to go to see the field in 2011. Shamier Jeffery is very likely to redshirt.