- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Schedule: The Gamecocks open practice Friday, and their first day in pads is on Aug. 7. They open the season on Aug. 30 at Vanderbilt, which will air at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Returning starters: Seven on offense and six on defense.
Star power: Though he missed half of last season, running back Marcus Lattimore is the face of South Carolina's program and is one of the nation's best running backs. Before he went down with his ACL injury he led the SEC in rushing. He has 2,015 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns in 20 career games.
New faces: With Alshon Jeffery gone, the Gamecocks are looking for more help at wide receiver. The staff hopes a lot of that help will come from incoming freshman Shaq Roland, who was South Carolina's top recruit in the 2012 class. He'll have every chance to compete for immediate playing time. Running back Mike Davis provides good depth, and Chaz Elder is talented enough to get some quality reps at safety during fall camp.
Don’t forget about: Last season, defensive end Devin Taylor received a lot of praise during the preseason, but played in the shadows of Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney. But don't think Taylor isn't fired up for his final season in Columbia. He's still an extremely disruptive pass-rusher, and he's combined for 13.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries over the past two seasons. Clowney might get he attention, but teams can't sleep on Taylor.
Big shoes to fill: Just look at the numbers and you'll see how much Jeffery meant to South Carolina. He was the only player to catch 30 or more passes for the Gamecocks last season with 49, and he caught 88 passes in 2010. Now that he's gone, South Carolina is turning to a group of very unproven targets. Ace Sanders is the top returning receiver with 29 catches last season, and has been anointed the No. 1 receiver. After that no wide receiver had more than 17 catches.
Key battle: South Carolina has to find reliable receivers this fall. Sanders has done well when his number has been called, but he needs help, and the offense needs help. Roland will get his chance, but he'll also compete with unproven starters D.L. Moore and DeAngelo Smith. Bruce Ellington is back and could also get time as a Wildcat quarterback. Speedster Damiere Byrd, Nick Jones, Shamier Jeffery and K.J. Brent will also get their shots. Freshman Jody Fuller could also get a chance to grab some reps.
Rising star: South Carolina enters fall camp with one of the strongest defensive lines in the SEC. While most of the attention is paid to the outside, sophomore defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles has the makings to be an elite player in this league. He played in 12 games last season, starting six, and registered 28 tackles with two for loss. He had a solid spring and should improve on his numbers this fall, especially when it comes to production behind the line of scrimmage.
Bottom line: The Gamecocks are fresh off of their first 11-win season, but could have bigger things in store in 2012. While the schedule gets tougher with the addition of a road game at LSU, Steve Spurrier's chirping means he's pretty excited about the team he has coming back and he's ready to make a run back to the SEC title game. If Lattimore is healthy and Connor Shaw can continue to be the pass-first quarterback Spurrier wants, the offense should see some good balance. But receivers have to step up. Defensively, this team is loaded again and will rely on its front seven. If the pieces fall into place, South Carolina could be looking at another sweep through the SEC East and another trip to Atlanta.