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Gamecocks also have a few questions on defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

South Carolina opens practice Tuesday night, and most eyes will be on sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia.

  • Can he make the kind of jump in his sophomore season the Gamecocks need him to make if they're going to be a factor in the Eastern Division race?

  • Has he matured enough to be a leader on this team?

  • Will he respond better to the way Steve Spurrier coaches him?

They're all pertinent questions, but some things need to fall just right for the defense, too, if the Gamecocks are going to have their first season under Spurrier in which they lose fewer than five games.

Namely, they need to stay healthy.

"We could be better than we were last year on defense if we stay healthy, but we're dangerously thin," said Ellis Johnson, South Carolina's assistant head coach for the defense.

That's especially true in the secondary where true freshman Stephon Gilmore will start at one cornerback and true freshman DeVonte Holloman could end up starting at strong safety. If Johnson decides the Gamecocks are better with senior Darian Stewart at the hybrid Spur safety position, then Holloman will almost certainly start.

The Gamecocks are also keeping their fingers crossed that sophomore cornerback C.C. Whitlock will be eligible, although Spurrier has said he will be suspended for a game or two. There's no depth behind him at cornerback.

"Our young defensive backs have to step up, or we're going to be average," said Johnson, whose Gamecocks finished 13th nationally in total defense last season and second in passing defense.

Up front, South Carolina needs junior defensive end Clifton Geathers to step up his game and make more plays. If Geathers gets it going, the Gamecocks could be dangerous at end with junior Cliff Matthews on the other side. Matthews is poised for a breakout season.

Johnson was really impressed with junior tackle Travian Robertson in the spring, and Robertson's progress was good enough that junior Ladi Ajiboye isn't assured of stepping right back into his starting spot after being suspended this spring. Fifth-year senior Nathan Pepper is the other starter at tackle, although he's coming off arthroscopic knee surgery.

Ajiboye, who was arrested in February and charged with simple possession of marijuana, will be suspended for the first three games.

There's also no guarantee that Ajiboye will come back as the same player he was before his problems, which means this will also be a big camp for redshirt freshman Kenny Davis. Sophomore Melvin Ingram is back after missing all of last season with a broken foot and has put on 20 pounds to help his move from linebacker to tackle.

Johnson is equally excited about the possibilities at linebacker. Senior outside linebacker Eric Norwood is an All-SEC performer, and junior Rodney Paulk returns after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Paulk will replace Jasper Brinkley at middle linebacker. He's started 22 games, including all 12 games two years ago.

Another guy to watch is redshirt freshman Reggie Bowens, who missed last season after undergoing shoulder surgery. The 6-foot-2, 233-pound Bowens was listed at strong safety in the spring, but may end up moving to inside linebacker this fall.

"He's a kid we've got to get on the field and get him in the right spot," Johnson said. "He's talented. I just don't know that he can play on the perimeter. He's probably going to have to play in the box."