By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: Steve Spurrier is entering his sixth season at South Carolina, and it is hard to believe that he has the second-longest tenure at his current school of all active SEC coaches behind only Mark Richt of Georgia. Spurrier had great success as the leader of the Florida program, but
he has yet to duplicate that success in Columbia.
The Gamecocks entered the 2009 campaign with modest expectations, as they were
considered a middle-of-the-road SEC team by most standards. After knocking off
NC State in a defensive struggle by a 7-3 final to open the campaign, South
Carolina fell to Georgia in a shootout, 41-37. Fortunately, the Gamecocks
bounced back strong from that defeat, stringing together four consecutive
victories to move to 5-1 overall. After falling to eventual national champ
Alabama on October 17th, the Rebels became bowl eligible by beating
Vanderbilt. That's when the Gamecocks seemed to hit the wall, as they suffered
three consecutive losses down the stretch to Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida,
all by double figures. South Carolina did manage to close the regular season
in style, beating up on rival Clemson, 34-17.
Spurrier and company earned a bid to the PapaJohns.com Bowl to take on
Connecticut of the Big East Conference, and the result of that affair was a
20-7 loss, dropping the team to 7-6 overall. The Gamecocks finished the
campaign ranked 11th in the SEC and 102nd nationally in scoring offense, hard
to believe for a Spurrier-coached team.
OFFENSE: "Stephen will be our starter unless he's beaten out by the next
quarterback," says Spurrier of Stephen Garcia. "Right now the next quarterback
is Connor Shaw, an all-state quarterback from the state of Georgia. Hopefully
that will help Stephen a bit, knowing we got another guy. I think competition
is always good at all the positions."
Last season as a sophomore, Garcia threw for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns
with 10 interceptions, and he is athletic enough to do some damage with his
legs as well. Garcia figures to look the way of Alshon Jeffery quite a bit,
especially considering that the sophomore caught 46 passes for 763 yards and
six touchdowns as a rookie. Another player who made an impact as a freshman in
2009 was Kenny Miles, a tailback who posted 626 yards on the ground. Don't be
surprised, however, if prized recruit Marcus Lattimore emerges as the club's
Weslye Saunders, the team's talented tight end, has been the subject of much
controversy this offseason. His name has been linked to a party that involved
agents and some North Carolina football players whom Saunders is reportedly
friends with. The NCAA continues to investigate whether Saunders had an
airline ticket and hotel room paid for by an agent, which of course is against
the rules. It remains to be seen if the tight end will be in action for the
opener against Southern Miss on September 2nd.
DEFENSE: Last season, South Carolina ranked third in the SEC and 15th in the
nation in total defense, yielding a mere 300.7 total ypg. The Gamecocks
welcome back seven starters from that unit, so there is reason for optimism.
Ellis Johnson, the team's defensive coordinator, will rely on Cliff Matthews
to be a disruptive pass rusher. The senior end posted seven sacks a year ago,
and he is certainly capable of reaching double figures in that category.
Fellow senior Ladi Ajiboye, a defensive tackle, also has All-SEC potential.
Moving to the linebacking corps, junior Shaq Wilson is back after registering
85 tackles as a sophomore. Wilson now moves to the outside in an effort to
replace standout Eric Norwood, who has moved on to the NFL. While Wilson's
tackle total may dip slightly in 2009, he will likely post a few more sacks,
as he will be featured in blitz packages.
South Carolina ranked second in the SEC and eighth nationally in pass defense
a year ago, allowing foes to gain just 163.0 ypg through the air. Three of the
four starters in the secondary return, including corners Stephon Gilmore and
Chris Culliver. It must be pointed out, however, that the Gamecock defensive
backfield posted only three interceptions last season, and there were too many
drops to count. That was a big a reason as any for the 3-5 SEC finish.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Spencer Lanning is now a senior and will once again handle the
placekicking and punting duties for South Carolina. Unfortunately, he gets
little help in the area of kick coverage, as the Gamecocks allowed three
returns for scores a year ago. There are enough athletes in place to produce a
formidable return game, but no individuals are accomplished in that area at
OUTLOOK: "We got excellent players," says Spurrier. "I think we got the best
group of athletes since we've been here. 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."
This team should certainly be better than the 3-5 league mark it posted a year
ago, but there is still no reason to believe that a conference title is in the
cards. Spurrier has been unable to attract a multitude of blue chip athletes
to Columbia, and right now the SEC belongs to Alabama.