SEC: Rodney Paulk
What's new: Four of South Carolina's nine assistants are new. John Butler, Jay Graham, Jeep Hunter and Ellis Johnson are all gone. Lorenzo Ward was promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator, replacing Johnson. Ward will still focus on the cornerbacks this season. Head coach Steve Spurrier also added Kirk Botkin to coach linebackers/Spurs, Grady Brown to coach the secondary, Joe Robinson to coach special teams/tight ends, and Everette Sands to coach running backs. Joe Connolly also replaces Craig Fitzgerald as South Carolina's strength and conditioning coach. Also, South Carolina will be looking to replace kicker Jay Wooten and punter Joey Scribner-Howard. Walk-ons Landon Ard and Adam Yates will compete at kicker this spring, and sophomore Patrick Fish should be No. 1 at punter.
On the move: Safety DeVonte Holloman is looking to transition back to the Spur position after spending 2011 at safety. He worked at the Spur last spring, but the departing Antonio Allen played there last season. Also, Damario Jeffery is slated to move from the Spur to Will linebacker this spring. Jimmy Legree is moving back to cornerback after making a couple of starts at free safety last season.
On the mend: The Gamecocks will be without star running back Marcus Lattimore, who is still recovering from a devastating knee injury suffered halfway through the 2011 season. Running back Shon Carson is also out and recovering from a knee injury suffered last season. Sophomore offensive lineman Mike Matulis will sit out the spring after recovering from shoulder surgery, and senior cornerback Akeem Auguste will be limited as he tries to get over a foot injury that kept him out of all but one game last season. Safety D.J. Swearinger will miss the spring after having an operation on his foot. Offensive lineman Brock Stadnik will sit out the spring following shoulder surgery.
Questions: Auguste and Swearinger are dealing with injuries, South Carolina must replace three of its top four cornerbacks, and Holloman is moving back to the Spur, meaning the Gamecocks' secondary is loaded with questions. Sophomore Victor Hampton is expected to take one of the cornerback spots. He's talented, but has had off-field issues. He has the potential to be a key player for the Gamecocks. Depth behind him is a question, as Legree and Cadarious Sanders are the only other cornerbacks with game experience. A big spring from redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian could put him in the thick of it for a starting cornerback spot. Sophomore-to-be Brison Williams takes over at strong safety after playing in eight games last season, but depth behind him is a concern, as rising sophomore Kadetrix Marcus, Edward Muldrow and Sheldon Royster enter spring with six games of experience, all from Marcus. South Carolina must also find players at free safety.
Key battle: With Alshon Jeffery taking his talents to the NFL, and Bruce Ellington sticking to basketball, South Carolina enters the spring with little experience at wide receiver. Ace Sanders is the only returning receiver with 20 or more catches (29), and Nick Jones is the only other one with 10 or more catches (12). There are bodies, but not production. D.L. Moore and DeAngelo Smith should enter the spring as starters, along with Sanders. Both showed promise in the past, but they combined for just 11 catches last season. Lamar Scruggs is a junior, but didn't catch a pass last season. Speedster Damiere Byrd is back after missing four games last season because of NCAA issues. Also, redshirt freshmen Shamier Jeffery (Alshon Jeffery's brother) and K.J. Brent will need to have big springs. South Carolina is expected to get good use out of incoming freshman Shaq Roland, but the Gamecocks need to find at least two solid options before he arrives this summer.
Don't forget about: South Carolina's front seven should be solid again in 2012. Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor will man the defensive end positions, while rising sophomore Kelcy Quarles, who enjoyed a tremendous freshman season, will help ease the loss of Travian Robertson inside. At linebacker, South Carolina only lost Rodney Paulk, and returns seniors Reginald Bowens and Shaq Wilson, who combined for 96 tackles in 2011. Seniors Damario Jeffery and Quinn Smith will also get time at the Will spot.
Breaking out: The coaches are very excited about the potential redshirt freshmen offensive tackle Brandon Shell possesses. He was a standout high school player, and will have every chance to earn the starting spot at left tackle this spring. He has supposedly had a good offseason so far, and has gotten stronger. If he's as good as the coaches say, he'll help shore up a line that has to replace two starters, including left tackle Rokevious Watkins.
All eyes on: Quarterback Connor Shaw saw vast improvements in his game as the 2011 season went on. He started to develop into more of a passer than a runner. While he still likes to run at times, you could tell that Shaw was making a conscious effort to rely on his arm first. In his last three games, Shaw averaged 219 yards and threw eight touchdowns to one interception. Now is the time for him to really come into his own as a passer. For South Carolina's offense to be successful, Shaw has to play smarter, and has to boost the Gamecocks' passing game. He'll also need to create better chemistry with his unproven receivers. South Carolina's offensive players will feed off Shaw's spring.
Defensive lines are very important in this league, but there are other guys in the box who have to be pretty reliable as well in this league. This league has done a pretty solid job of producing some top talent at this position as well.
You can see what are preseason linebacker rankings looked like here.
And here are our postseason rankings:
2. Georgia: Linebackers are essential to any 3-4 defense, and the Bulldogs' group did quite well in 2011. Georgia ended up with one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC with 19 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. He also had 49 quarterback hurries. Michael Gilliard was third on the team behind Jones with 65 tackles. While Alec Ogletree missed part of the first half of the season, the speedster still finished with 52 tackles, including 7.5 for loss. Cornelius Washington, Amarlo Herrera Christian Robinson combined to add 101 more tackles, as Georgia's defense ranked fifth nationally.
3. Arkansas: Arkansas' defense had a lot of bend in it last season, but the linebackers found ways to make plays. Newcomer Alonzo Highsmith was third on the team with 80 tackles, led with 12.5 tackles for loss and had 4.5 sacks. The star continued to be Jerry Franklin, who led the team in tackles (101) for the fourth straight year. Then there was Jerico Nelson, who was all over the field as that hybrid linebacker/safety. He came away with 70 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Ross Rasner, who played outside with Nelson, added 53 more tackles and two sacks.
4. Florida: The Gators' defense ranked eighth nationally in part because of the aggressive play of its front seven. Jon Bostic commanded the middle, leading the team with 94 tackles, including 10 for loss. Jelani Jenkins seemed to come more into his own outside, finishing third on the team in tackles. The big surprise was Lerentee McCray, who played both Sam linebacker and the hybrid Buck. He was one of Florida's most active linebackers and grabbed 7.5 tackles for loss. Ronald Powell started at the Buck, but saw most of his production from defensive end.
5. Vanderbilt: The Commodores entered the season needing to replace three starting linebackers and ended the year with a very impressive linebacking corps. It was led by vet Chris Marve, who was 10th in the league in tackles. Archibald Barnes had a solid year at the Will, ranking fourth on the team in tackles and grabbing two interceptions. Chase Garnham and Al Owens manned the Sam position and combined for 72 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Against conference foes, Vandy's rush defense ranked fourth in the league.
6. LSU: The Tigers were in search of that dominant middle linebacker all season and might have found a budding star in Kevin Minter, really grew into the position by the end of the season and was fifth on the team in tackles. He started 11 games, but shared time with Karnell Hatcher, who finished with 24 tackles. Ryan Baker was LSU's best linebacker, was an outstanding leader and was fourth on the team with 64 tackles. Stefoin Francois was the starter at Sam, but he accumulated just 11 tackles, while backup Tahj Jones registered 27. Still, LSU owned the No. 2 national defense.
7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks saw improvement from this group as the season went on. While the defensive line got a ton of credit, the linebackers did their part in securing the defense's No. 3 national ranking. Antonio Allen spent some time in the box at the Spur position and led South Carolina with 88 tackles and had 9.5 for loss. Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson, who returned from injury, rotated at the Mike and combined for 109 tackles. Will linebacker Reginald Bowens added 44 tackles.
8. Kentucky: The Wildcats owned the SEC's top tackler in Danny Trevathan (143), who should have received more national attention. Trevathan was one of the most active defenders around at the Will. Winston Guy played the hybrid linebacker/safety and was third in the SEC with 120 tackles. Ronnie Sneed added 71 more tackles. Kentucky's defense was much more aggressive under new defensive coordinator Rick Minter and got more exotic looks from its linebackers.
9. Mississippi State: Cameron Lawrence was a beast for the Bulldogs in 2011. He was second in the SEC with 123 tackles, and had 49 solo. Senior Brandon Wilson added 94 more tackles. Brandon Maye, who transferred from Clemson, was expected to make a bigger impact for the Bulldogs, but played behind Wilson and was 11th on the team in tackles. Sophomore Deontae Skinner added 69 tackles and Mississippi State ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total defense.
10. Tennessee: The Vols' top three tacklers were linebackers. The leader was senior Austin Johnson, who finished the season with 81 tackles, including 41 solo. Next were two true freshmen on the outside in A.J. Johnson (80) and Curt Maggitt (56). Both freshmen experienced up-and-down seasons, but were SEC All-Freshman selections. Herman Lathers, who was a projected started, missed 2011 with a fractured ankle, and after the big three, the Vols didn't get a ton out of their linebackers, as Dontavis Sapp was their next most productive linebacker with 20 tackles.
11. Auburn: The Tigers' defense really struggled in 2011 and gave up more than 200 rushing yards a contest. Auburn had to basically start over at linebacker, but lone returning starter Daren Bates had a heck of a year, ranking fourth in the league with 104 tackles. He really tried to make sure he played all over the field last fall. After that, the play was up-and-down. Senior Eltoro Freeman took over in the middle halfway into the year and finished with 58 tackles, while Jake Holland and Jonathan Evans combined for 83 tackles.
12. Ole Miss: The Rebels' defense had all sorts of problems defensively, including allowing 256.5 yards per game and 21 rushing touchdowns. The linebackers took a major hit with the absence of D.T. Shackelford, who missed the season with a knee injury. Mike Marry stepped up at the Mike and led Ole Miss with 81 tackles and five for loss. Freshman Serderius Bryant and junior Joel Kight combined for 122 tackles. Damien Jackson played the Spur and added 64 tackles, but Ole Miss' defense ranked dead last in the SEC.
After all, Johnson recruited him and knows the caliber of athlete the Gamecocks are getting in the country’s top-rated overall prospect.
But what are realistic expectations for the 6-foot-6, 252-pound Clowney in his first season?
“But, physically, he could have put on a football uniform for the Carolina Panthers last year and played three games, and nobody would have known that he shouldn’t have been in there. That kid is physically ready to go, but there’s a difference in this league and high school. There are going to be some things he doesn’t do well.”
Other than his freakish athletic ability, the other thing about Clowney that jumped out to Johnson was how hard he played.
“There are a lot of big, tall, physical and fast kids in high school, and they don’t play like he did because they don’t have to,” Johnson said. “Jadeveon played like a reckless train.”
Big spring for Cann: It’s been a rarity under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina to see the same offensive line coach back for a second year in a row, but Shawn Elliott is going through his second spring.
The Gamecocks played much more consistently up front under Elliott last season and proved that they could run the ball in big games -- Florida and Georgia.
Elliott has a couple of holes to fill this spring and feels like redshirt freshman A.J. Cann may be the key to how everything comes together.
“If he can come in and we can insert him at one of those guard positions, then I think we’ve got something going,” Elliott said. “If he can’t step it up a notch, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board, but I think he’s going to do a good job this spring. He’s as physical looking a character as you ever want to see up front. He’s 6-3 and 310 pounds. I’m going to put the pressure on him to be that guy.”
The other thing Elliott plans to do this spring is see if senior Rokevious Watkins can move over from guard and be the Gamecocks’ starting right tackle.
“Watkins has changed his attitude,” Elliott said. “He wasn’t out of shape a year ago, but was a heavier guy. He’s leaned up and starting to do the right things. He’s in the weight room when he’s not supposed to be in there. He’s starting to do a little more than what’s expected of him. We’re going to experiment with him at right tackle because he’s so fluid. He could really be a strong right tackle and solidify us.”
Senior Kyle Nunn returns at left tackle and junior T.J. Johnson at center. Senior Terrence Campbell is the favorite to win the other guard spot.
“Terrence is a big, strong guy who filled in at guard in the bowl game,” Elliott said. “I’ve got to see if he can play in a full-time role.”
- Not only is he one of the best linebackers in the SEC, but LSU's Kelvin Sheppard is also a coach on the field for the Tigers.
- Florida true freshman safety Jordan Haden, the younger brother of Joe Haden, has been granted his release from the Gators.
- South Carolina linebacker Rodney Paulk puts his injuries in the past.
- A trimmed-down John Sullen listens to his mom , and is making a strong bid for Auburn's starting right offensive tackle job.
- Safety Pat Martin of Greenville, S.C., becomes Tennessee's 14th verbal commitment for the 2011 class. Martin was rated as the 14th best safety prospect in the country by ESPN.
- Kentucky receiver Gene McCaskill is out for the season after tearing his ACL in last Saturday's scrimmage.
- Johnthan Banks' move to cornerback is just part of the shuffling that's taken place in the Mississippi State secondary.
- Alabama defensive back signee Deion Belue appears headed for junior college.
What’s new: Shawn Elliott is South Carolina’s third different offensive line coach in as many years. He’ll also serve as the Gamecocks’ running game coordinator and brings with him from Appalachian State a version of the zone-read offense that South Carolina plans to incorporate into its package this season.
Sidelined: Tight end Weslye Saunders’ eligibility for the season remains in limbo after being questioned by NCAA representatives about alleged improper dealings with agents. It’s unclear how that investigation will affect his practice status.
Key battle: Akeem Auguste started nine games at cornerback last season, but he and Chris Culliver will be switching positions in 2010. If Auguste is going to remain in the starting lineup at free safety, he’ll have to hold off D.J. Swearinger, who was one of the stars of the spring.
New on the scene: Depending on how Stephen Garcia responds from being challenged publicly all offseason by Steve Spurrier, true freshman Connor Shaw could certainly see his share of snaps at quarterback. The Head Ball Coach was impressed with Shaw in the spring. Byron Jerideau, a 6-foot, 310-pound junior college newcomer, is being counted on at defensive tackle. Spurrier thinks true freshman Ace Sanders will fit in nicely as a slot receiver, while true freshman offensive linemen A.J. Cann, Tramell Williams and Ronald Patrick will all get a long look.
Breaking out: His former high school teammate, Stephon Gilmore, has already shown that he’s a budding star. Now it’s DeVonte Holloman’s turn at strong safety. The 6-3, 226-pound sophomore has all the tools to be a big-time player in this league.
Don’t forget about: Rodney Paulk has missed most of the last two seasons with knee injuries, but he returns as the Gamecocks’ starting middle linebacker. He’s started in 23 games during his career, but only one since the 2007 season. The NCAA recently granted Paulk a sixth year of eligibility, meaning he'll also be able to play during the 2011 season.
All eyes on: Freshman running back Marcus Lattimore. He’s perhaps the most important recruit that Spurrier has signed since arriving in Columbia in 2005. The jury is still out on South Carolina’s offensive line and will be until the Gamecocks prove otherwise. Lattimore is the kind of back with power, speed and acceleration that can make an offensive line look a lot better than it really is.
Quoting: “I think we’ve got the best group of athletes since we’ve been there. I know they have the best attitudes. Their work habits and so forth have been excellent. Now we need to get past seven wins. We need to win big at South Carolina.” – South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier
Here’s a rundown:
2. Georgia: With the Bulldogs going to a 3-4 scheme this season, that means junior pass-rushing specialist Justin Houston now falls into the linebacker category. Houston had 7.5 sacks last season from his end position. Sophomore Cornelius Washington also shifts from end to outside linebacker after collecting four sacks a year ago. The Bulldogs have moved senior starter Darryl Gamble from inside to outside linebacker, while senior Akeem Dent and junior Marcus Dowtin are also back. Dent and Dowtin were part-time starters last season.
3. Ole Miss: Two of the more underrated linebackers in the SEC are Ole Miss seniors Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker. Cornell started all 13 games in the middle last season and was third on the team with 79 tackles, including eight for loss. Walker started 11 games last season at strongside linebacker. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix also likes his younger talent, including D.T. Shackelford, Joel Kight and Mike Marry. Shackelford, in particular, could be poised for a breakout season. This is a productive and versatile group.
4. Auburn: The Tigers will line up with a pair of senior All-SEC candidates in Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens. They both finished among the top 10 tacklers in the league last season, combining for 199 total tackles. The only problem was that they had to play just about every meaningful snap. The Tigers hope to have more depth this season. They didn’t have any last season and are moving Daren Bates from safety to a hybrid outside linebacker position. Bates led all SEC freshmen a year ago with 70 tackles. He wasn’t able to go through spring, though, because he was recovering from shoulder surgery.
5. Florida: Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper were major cogs in the Gators’ linebacker corps a year ago and made a ton of plays. Life without them will be different, but not impossible. That’s what happens when you recruit talented players like Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, both of whom had big springs. There’s also some experience returning. Senior A.J. Jones has 30 career starts and started the first 11 games a year ago at outside linebacker before injuring his knee. Senior Brandon Hicks has also been a part-time starter each of the past two seasons. There’s a lot of speed in this group.
6. South Carolina: The Gamecocks might have a little more depth than they had a year ago at linebacker, but what they don’t have is that proven playmaker on the outside. Eric Norwood filled that role as well as anybody the past two seasons, but now he’s gone. Junior Shaq Wilson was the team’s leading tackler last season, and he’s moving to one of the outside spots from middle linebacker. Senior Rodney Paulk returns in the middle after suffering through season-ending knee injuries each of the past two seasons. Senior Josh Dickerson is another guy who can move around and play different spots.
7. Tennessee: One of the most experienced positions on Tennessee’s team is at linebacker. The Vols had several players playing at a high level there last season only to be injured. They’re all back, including senior Nick Reveiz in the middle. Tennessee’s defense was never the same after he left the lineup with a knee injury. Senior LaMarcus Thompson is also back after battling through injuries a year ago, and the same goes for senior Savion Frazier. Sophomore linebacker Greg King is currently suspended, but he also showed promise last season as a freshman.
8. LSU: Senior Kelvin Sheppard returns as one of the top middle linebackers in the SEC. He’s a tackling machine who was fourth in the league in tackles a year ago with 110. He’s one of those defenders who’s a factor on every play. The key for the Tigers will be how quickly the players around him grow up now that veterans Jacob Cutrera, Harry Coleman and Perry Riley have all moved on. Sheppard thinks junior Ryan Baker is ready to shine at weakside linebacker after being a force on special teams the past two seasons. Junior Stefoin Francois is the top candidate to step in on the strong side after starting his career as a safety.
9. Vanderbilt: Linebacker has been one of the Commodores’ strong suits for several years now, and that shouldn’t change this season with junior Chris Marve manning the middle. A first-team preseason All-SEC selection, Marve has racked up more than 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons. Senior John Stokes, who’s already been accepted into Vanderbilt’s medical school, returns at one of the outside linebacker spots. The Commodores could use a healthy Tristan Strong, who tore his ACL last season as a redshirt freshman.
10. Mississippi State: Gone is hard-hitting Jamar Chaney, who came back from an injury last season and helped anchor the Bulldogs’ defense. Senior Chris White will move over to play in the middle after starting all 12 games and recording 75 tackles last season. Senior K.J. Wright returns as one of the best big-play defenders on the team after finishing with 6.5 tackles for loss and forcing two fumbles last season. After White and Wright, the Bulldogs will be counting on several younger players at linebacker.
11. Arkansas: The Hogs need to improve across the board on defense, and linebacker is no exception. Junior Jerry Franklin has started since he was a freshman and finished with 94 tackles last season. He’s capable of playing in the middle, but Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino wants to leave him at weakside linebacker and give him a chance to make more plays against both the run and pass. The Hogs still need to settle on a middle linebacker. Senior Jermaine Love and sophomore Terrell Williams were battling it out in the spring.
12. Kentucky: Junior Danny Trevathan returns at weakside linebacker. He’s the Wildcats’ leading returning tackler. But after Trevathan, there’s not much game experience at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie made a big impression on the coaches last preseason before hurting his shoulder. Sophomore Ridge Wilson is another younger player who needs to come through for the Wildcats at linebacker.
- Despite being the Los Angeles Dodgers' first pick in the baseball draft, quarterback Zach Lee is leaning toward playing football at LSU, writes ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney.
- South Carolina middle linebacker Rodney Paulk gets a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and will be able to play two more seasons for the Gamecocks.
- It won't be an easy start for former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin at South California, which reportedly will be hammered by NCAA sanctions.
- Ole Miss' football team improves its APR score and will not face penalties for a second straight year.
- Former Alabama safety Justin Woodall gets another crack at baseball, writes Gentry Estes of The Mobile-Press Register.
The Gamecocks finished 15th nationally in total defense last season and 13th nationally in 2008. Alabama and Florida were the only other two SEC teams to finish in the top-15 each of the past two years.
The Gamecocks acted quickly and extended Johnson’s contract to a four-year deal and increased his annual salary to $700,000.
“We got all that done in a day, and we needed to,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Coach Dooley was coming after him hard.”
Johnson, 58, is one of the straightest shooters in the college game. He’s got that old-school aura about him and doesn’t sugarcoat it for anybody, including his players.
So when he says he doesn’t really have a feel for his defense this spring, he means it.
For one, the Gamecocks have been a MASH unit. Defensive linemen Cliff Matthews and Travian Robertson have been sidelined while recovering from injuries, and defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye has been limited.
Linebackers Rodney Paulk and Reggie Bowens have also been sidelined along with cornerback Chris Culliver.
“It’s good in that we’ve gotten a chance to see a lot of young kids, and that’s what the spring is about,” Johnson said. “But it’s hard to say where we are as a defensive unit right now. That might not be something that comes together until the second week of preseason practice.”
The Gamecocks return seven of 11 starters from last season, but one of the more disappointing things this spring for Johnson is that one of those younger defensive linemen hasn’t jumped out there and been more of a presence.
“With Matthews not being out there, we haven’t gotten any one-on-one pressure on the quarterback,” said Johnson, adding that sophomore end Devin Taylor and redshirt freshman Chaz Sutton still had a ways to go in that department.
Matthews was a second-team All-SEC performer last season and tied the departed Eric Norwood for the team lead in sacks with seven. He's one of the top three or four defensive ends in the league.
“You’ve got to have two of those guys at end, and we haven’t found that other light-the-match guy this spring,” Johnson said.
Johnson said junior Shaq Wilson is the most likely candidate to replace Norwood at outside linebacker, particularly if Paulk returns at full strength at middle linebacker. Paulk has suffered season-ending knee injuries each of the past two seasons.
The Gamecocks should be outstanding in the secondary, led by sophomore cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who started every game as a true freshman last season. He’s a future pro.
His high school teammate, DeVonte Holloman, is having a super spring at safety. But Holloman is a bit too heavy, and Johnson would like to see him lighter in the fall.
“I just don’t think you can play back there at 229 pounds,” Johnson said.
Junior Akeem Auguste has moved from cornerback to safety, but is being pushed by sophomore D.J. Swearinger, who’s been one of the Gamecocks’ breakthrough players this spring. Junior cornerback C.C. Whitlock has also had his moments this spring, although Johnson still wants to see him be more consistent.
“We’ve still got to prove it, but I think we’ll be better on defense than we were last year,” Gilmore said. “There were a lot of us feeling our way along last year because we hadn’t played. Everybody’s played now, and there are a lot of guys on this defense ready to leave their mark.”
Senior Chris Culliver, who's making the move from safety to cornerback, is recovering from shoulder surgery. It's his second shoulder surgery in less than a year, and one of the reasons he and Akeem Auguste are swapping positions is that the Gamecocks' defensive staff thinks Culliver will be able to better protect his shoulder at cornerback than safety.
Some of the other key names on defense that will be sitting out the spring are end Cliff Matthews (shoulder), tackle Travian Robertson (knee), linebacker Reggie Bowens (shoulder) and linebacker Rodney Paulk (knee).
In addition, tackle Ladi Ajiboye will probably do very little this spring just to make sure he's healthy entering preseason camp.
Sounds like some new faces on defense for the Gamecocks will have a big opportunity this spring to show what they can do.
One of the guys to watch, in my mind, is sophomore safety DeVonte Holloman. He's up to 226 pounds, and after starting in two games a year ago, is poised to be an enforcer at strong safety.
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."