Here are 10 things we know right now as the Gamecocks approach the halfway point of preseason camp.
1. Connor Shaw Is Closing The Gap: Despite all the grumbling from some sides about Stephen Garcia's reinstatement, he entered preseason camp with a lengthy lead over Shaw in the quarterback race. Garcia's extensive experience and his production on the field have always given him the upper hand. Shaw will tell you he started camp slowly but based on his performance in Saturday's scrimmage (9-of-11, 147 yards, two touchdowns), he appears to be gathering momentum for one final run at Garcia before the end of camp. Granted, he faced the second-team defense for most of the scrimmage, but his numbers are too good to ignore. Garcia remains the favorite and still gives the Gamecocks the best chance to win, especially on the road at places such as Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas.
2. Coaches Still Prefer Proven Experience Over Talented Newcomers: The 2011 signing class could prove in time to be one of the greatest in school history. Obviously, Jadeveon Clowney, who was credited with two "sacks" in Saturday's scrimmage, received the lion's share of publicity, but the group is filled with potentially great players. But the reality is none of them have played in a real game yet or faced an SEC opponent on the road. Once they do, we'll find out exactly how good they are.
That's why Ellis Johnson said on Saturday that Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram were the starters at defensive end and Shaq Wilson and Rodney Paulk were the top pair at linebacker. And why Steve Spurrier maintained that Kenny Miles was still the No. 2 running back even though Shon Carson has been impressive in camp. Coaches will stick with proven, more experienced players until the younger guns step up and help win a game. Remember, the coaches really didn't know how good Marcus Lattimore was until his breakout game against Georgia last September. After that, it was off to the races.
3. Free Safety Remains A Concern: Johnson was hoping Brison Williams and Jimmy Legree would stage a spirited competition for the free safety spot throughout camp. Those plans worked well for about the first eight or nine practices, but went awry when Williams broke his lower arm trying to make a tackle late last week. As a result, Johnson's apprehension about the position, which he has continuously expressed since last spring, will only grow stronger.
Legree has performed well in camp, but has never played the position in a game. The depth is unproven with redshirt freshman Sharrod Golightly taking over Williams' spot. Behind him are true freshmen. More moves could be on the way to help shore up the position in the absence of Williams.
4. Damiere Byrd Is One Of USC's Top Six Receivers: As things stand today, Byrd will definitely be a part of the six-man wide receiver rotation position coach Steve Spurrier Jr. has often spoken about. He possesses too much speed and his hands are too soft to keep him on the bench. Byrd did it again on Saturday with a 65-yard touchdown reception from Shaw.
Except for Alshon Jeffery, has any USC wide receiver performed better than Byrd through 12 practices? I doubt it. He has been a nightmare for USC's defensive backs to cover (he always seems to be a step or two behind the secondary) and, in his own words, garnered a tremendous amount of respect from his teammates for beating senior Marty Markett in a match race to earn the unofficial title of "Fastest Gamecock."
5. The Second Defensive Tackle Spot Is Still Too Close To Call: Johnson contends the top four candidates for the defensive tackle spot next to Travian Robertson are so closely bunched together that anybody could win the job in the next two weeks before USC begins preparations in earnest for the East Carolina game. Who wins it? Your guess is as good as mine. I don't think even Johnson or D-line coach Brad Lawing know at this point, or would even be willing to make a guess.
According to Johnson, the four main candidates are (Byron Jerideau, Kelcy Quarles, Aldrick Fordham and J.T. Surratt). All played solidly in preseason camp. All of them bring solid credentials. Jerideau has lost weight and is the strongest player on the team. Quarles is quick, while Fordham has the most experience. Surratt has a redshirt year under his belt.
6. Jay Wooten Will Be USC's Placekicker: So, who gets the trying task of following in the footsteps of Ryan Succop and Spencer Lanning, two of the best placekickers in USC history? Wooten, who is going into his third season with the Gamecocks after transferring from North Carolina in early 2009. He's been the most consistent kicker in camp and has routinely nailed field goals from within 45 yards. He doesn't possess Succop's booming leg (Lanning didn't, either), but he has proven to be accurate on the kicks you need to make at the SEC level to win games. His first big test will come Sept. 10 when USC faces Georgia. Missed extra points played pivotal roles in the 2005 and 2009 losses there.
7. Bruce Ellington Will Give A Boost To The USC Offense: We all know what an electric athlete Ellington is from watching him play hoops last season. He'll now transition to football. He was a fantastic high school player and has shown an acute ability in practice to make plays as a receiver or "Wildcat" quarterback. Possessing the talent to play one major Division I sport successfully is difficult enough. But two? That's off-the-charts phenomenal. Spurrier offered a glimpse into Ellington's makeup when he told the media about a week ago that Ellington showed up for preseason camp already knowing the plays and the offense. Certainly, that took hours and hours of study over the course of the summer. Combine that knowledge of the offense with his incredible speed and Ellington to prepared to make a major contribution this season.
8. K.J. Brent Has Been The Biggest Surprise In Camp: Who's been the biggest surprise in preseason camp so far? My vote goes to Brent, a freshman wide receiver from the Charlotte area. Frankly, I didn't expect much from Brent when camp started two weeks ago. I thought he would show a few flashes of his abilities and then relocate to Redshirt-ville. But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion for one year - he started making plays. In fact, he made a whole bunch of plays.
Brent is tall, athletic and has magnets for hands. I don't think I've seen him drop a ball yet. Ripping off a popular phrase often spoken by coaches, he catches everything. I've already heard Spurrier say that about Brent on two or three occasions, so he certainly has the attention of the coaches. He's not a shoo-in to make the top six, like Byrd, because he doesn't have supersonic speed, but when your coach compares you to former Florida receiver Chris Doering, things are looking up.
9. Jadeveon Clowney Will Be A Superstar Someday: Yes, Clowney still has a lot to learn about playing defensive end in the SEC, but in terms of raw physical ability, Clowney is very, very impressive. His first step is lightning-quick. Typically, he has taken two or three steps forward before the opposing offensive tackle has time to take one step back in pass-blocking. The result: Clowney is usually past them in a flash headed towards the quarterback.
But there are other reasons why Clowney will succeed - he has an outstanding work ethic, takes nothing for granted and doesn't consider himself above his teammates just because he happened to be the No. 1 prospect in the nation. In short, he's a good teammate. Even though he'll start the season working behind Ingram, Clowney will be given plenty of opportunities to contribute. He's playing for one of the best defensive coaches (Johnson) and D-line coaches (Lawing) in the business. They'll get Clowney to where he wants - and should - go before his Gamecock career is over.
10. Sept. 3 Can't Get Here Fast Enough: With 12 practices in the books, we're approaching the midway point of preseason camp. That day will come Wednesday when the Gamecocks hold their 15th of 29 workouts allowed by NCAA rules. By this point, the players are getting tired of hitting each other in practice and want someone else to knock helmets with. The defense knows what the offense is doing, and vice versa. Talking with the players following Saturday's scrimmage, you could tell they are ready to play a game. The feeling will only intensify as this week rolls along, especially by the end of the third official scrimmage on Saturday.