NCF Nation: Damario Jeffery

Devin Taylor is noticing all the attention surrounding South Carolina’s program, and he likes it.

It means people are expecting big things from the Gamecocks, and some might even be a little fearful of them.

“It’s almost like a target on our backs,” South Carolina’s senior defensive end said.

But that target didn’t just appear in Columbia, S.C. It started to form after South Carolina’s first trip to the SEC championship game in 2010, and Taylor said he could sense it every week last season. He could tell that the perception of South Carolina’s team had changed around the league and more respect was thrown the Gamecocks’ way.

“You could just feel it,” he said.

[+] EnlargeSouth Carolina's Devin Taylor
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireDefensive end Devin Taylor says South Carolina's defense isn't rebuilding, it's reloading.
It’s not hard to believe that the team that once struggled to make upward moves in the SEC's Eastern Division is now linked to divisional favorite talk. In coach Steve Spurrier’s seven seasons at South Carolina, he has compiled 55 wins (leaving him nine away from tying Rex Enright’s school record for career wins), took South Carolina to Atlanta, and led the Gamecocks to their first 11-win season in 2011.

The next step? An SEC championship.

It’s a goal that Spurrier said he expects, and so do his players. Taylor said winning the East is no longer the No. 1 goal. They want to be showered with celebratory confetti inside the Georgia Dome in December.

And South Carolina has the parts in place to make such a run. The offense loses star receiver Alshon Jeffery and returns a cluster of unproven receivers, but the plus is that there is a ton of depth there. Also, much-ballyhooed incoming freshman WR Shaq Roland will be in town this summer, and a lot is expected of him.

On the offensive line, Rokevious Watkins and Terrence Campbell are gone (both were seniors in 2011). But South Carolina returns three starters, and the coaches expect redshirt freshman Brandon Shell to step right in at left tackle for Watkins. Get him going and South Carolina’s line should be fine.

Quarterback Connor Shaw returns after really starting to come into his own as more of a passer at the end of last season. He’ll always run the ball, but he showed he can be disciplined and lead with his arm.

Running back Marcus Lattimore (knee) won’t practice in the spring, but he certainly hasn’t been ruled out for the regular season. A healthy Lattimore, who has racked up 2,015 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns in 20 career games, is an obvious Heisman Trophy candidate.

Defensively, Taylor can’t help but get excited. While South Carolina enters spring camp down in numbers in the secondary -- especially with injuries to Akeem Auguste and D.J. Swearinger -- Taylor said he’s seen younger players (such as cornerback Victor Hampton) make improvements during offseason workouts. And Taylor has really been impressed with DeVonte Holloman, who is transitioning back to the spur position from safety.

When it comes to the front seven, Taylor knows the key names are Jadeveon Clowney -- who was seventh in the SEC in sacks (eight) and 11th in tackles for loss (12) -- along with Kelcy Quarles, Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens. But you can’t sleep on defensive tackle Byron Jerideau or linebacker Damario Jeffery, who moves to middle linebacker from the spur.

Taylor said South Carolina isn’t rebuilding on defense, it’s reloading, which is a scary thought. South Carolina was third nationally in total defense in 2011, and Taylor thinks the Gamecocks are equipped with just as much talent to have a similar year in 2012.

Even with the skill that returns on both sides for South Carolina, Taylor still expects the Gamecocks to be overlooked at times -- maybe not by opposing teams, but by those on the periphery.

And he’s fine with that.

“We can do the underdog thing and then come back and bite them in the butt,” he said.

Taylor hopes that “underdog thing” will take South Carolina to the top of the SEC in 2012. From where this program has been to where it is now, a win in Atlanta in early December would show just how big a turnover the Gamecocks have made, Taylor said.

“That would mean a lot, and it would let this entire program shine [and show] how much it’s grown and how much it’s willing to grow for future players coming here,” he said.

“I’ve worked hard over all these summers, and all this work actually paid off to do something great.”

Exiting the spring: South Carolina

April, 8, 2011
4/08/11
12:52
PM ET
Spring game: 1 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN3.com

Questions answered: Marcus Lattimore was a workhorse last season as a true freshman for the Gamecocks, but it looks like he may get some help in 2011. Kenny Miles and Eric Baker both showed some burst this spring at running back. The Gamecocks will ride Lattimore next season, but they also don’t want to wear him out by the time they get to November. Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense, thinks he’s found a few linebackers. Damario Jeffery moved from the hybrid Spur position to weakside linebacker. Quin Smith has also looked good at the weakside spot. Shaq Wilson returns at middle linebacker after missing all but one game last season. Reggie Bowens, who’s been beset with injuries, also got some work in the middle. If Bowens can stay healthy, he really helps the Gamecocks’ depth, especially when you consider that Rodney Paulk will be back in the fall.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesConnor Shaw has attempted only 33 passes heading into the 2011 season.
Questions unanswered: With senior quarterback Stephen Garcia indefinitely suspended (yes, for a fifth time), it’s hard to say the Gamecocks are set at quarterback. Garcia could be gone for good, which puts a ton of pressure on sophomore Connor Shaw. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier likes Shaw, but asking him to go the distance next season when he’s never started an SEC game is a tough way to break in a new quarterback in this league. On defense, nobody stepped up and won the strong safety job, which makes you wonder if the Gamecocks might have to move DeVonte Holloman back there in the fall. Johnson wants to keep the 230-pound Holloman at the Spur position. But with Corey Addison hurt all spring, nobody else staked claim to the strong safety spot. Perhaps true freshman Sheldon Royster will be able to help once he arrives this summer.

Spring stars: Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said entering the spring that one of the keys up front would be how well redshirt freshman A.J. Cann played at left guard. Well, Cann exits the spring as the starter, which allowed Elliott to experiment a little bit with different players. Free safety D.J. Swearinger stole the show on defense. He’s an All-SEC player in the making and was always around the ball and pitching in with big plays. Jason Barnes and Ace Sanders both showcased big-play potential at the slot receiver position. Finding other playmakers at receiver to help take the pressure off of Alshon Jeffery will be important. Redshirt freshman receiver Nick Jones is another guy who had his moments this spring.

Of note: Kenny Davis moved from defensive tackle to offensive guard, while Corey Robinson moved from offensive tackle to defensive tackle. … True freshman Martay Mattox shifted from cornerback to free safety and looks like he could be a fixture on special teams. Mattox played quarterback in high school. … Bruce Ellington, the starting point guard on South Carolina’s basketball team, plans to join the football team in June. He was a star football player in high school and could factor in at a number of positions, including receiver, kick returner and quarterback in the Wildcat formation. … Lattimore has beefed up to a rock-solid 231 pounds and has been a beast in the weight room. … Senior Rokevious Watkins has been working with the first unit at right tackle this spring, but could still slide back inside to guard if junior college newcomer Kaleb Broome or redshirt freshman Cody Gibson comes on at tackle. ... Offensive guard Ronald Patrick had his spring cut short after undergoing surgery for an abscess behind his right eye.

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