Overview: South Carolina fans were somewhat spoiled the last two years with Steve Spurrier tutoring receiver Sidney Rice. Things could actually improve a bit now that Spurrier's last two recruiting classes have reached campus. Quarterback Blake Mitchell and receiver Kenny McKinley return to lead the passing game, but several highly touted freshmen are waiting in the wings. The biggest question is still the offensive line, which returns only tackles Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorensen. The Gamecocks will look to continue their momentum from the end of last season. Mitchell finished on a tear (69.4 completion percentage over the final 18 quarters) and the offense had at least 400 yards in each of the last four games.
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Cory Boyd led SEC running backs in receiving a year ago.
Best player: TB Cory Boyd. Boyd returned better than ever after sitting out a year-long suspension in 2005. Boyd rushed for 823 yards and eight touchdowns last year and led SEC running backs with 35 catches for 406 yards. A tough runner, Boyd will be spelled by junior Mike Davis. However, there's no secret who the star of the offense will be without Rice.
Most overrated: Mitchell. Mitchell ended the 2006 season on a high, but South Carolina fans shouldn't be overly confident. Mitchell was named the starter prior to the 2006 season, but quickly lost his job to receiver/quarterback/safety Syvelle Newton. In 2005, Mitchell was serviceable as South Carolina's best option. Spurrier and his notoriously quick hook might come into play with talented freshmen Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia available.
Most underrated: WR Kenny McKinley. McKinley played the last two seasons in the shadow of Rice. Last season he finished with 51 catches for 880 yards and five touchdowns. His 17.3 yards-per-catch average was more than 2 yards better than Rice last year. Rest assured, the top receiver in a Spurrier-led offense won't remain underrated for long.
Must step up: The offensive line. Injuries and ineffectiveness made the line the weakest unit in the offense. South Carolina finally found a consistent lineup by using the same starting five for the final six games. Both tackles return, but the interior of the line is a question mark. In the spring, Spurrier mentioned bringing some defensive linemen to the offensive side of the ball.
Shoes to fill: WR Sidney Rice. Spurrier arrived in Columbia and immediately found a new toy. In two seasons Rice finished third on the school receiving list with 2,233 yards. McKinley returns as the top receiver and is perhaps the only one who can stretch the defense. Spurrier will look at sophomores Moe Brown and Freddie Brown, junior college transfer Larry Freeman and members of the incoming class to take some of the pressure off McKinley.
Impact newcomer: WR Chris Culliver. A true freshman is likely to see playing time immediately in Columbia, so why not Culliver? He was a five-star prospect and was the No. 3-ranked wide receiver in the class of 2007 by Rivals.com. Four-star signees Jason Barnes, Dion LeCorn and Joseph Hills could also play immediately.
New in 2007: With so many true and redshirt freshmen in the running for playing time, the offense could have a much different look in 2007. Mitchell enters the season with a grip on the starting job, but freshmen Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia are hungry for playing time. This will be the first time in Spurrier's tenure at South Carolina that he won't be able to depend on Rice.
Grade the units: QB: B-minus. Mitchell played well down the stretch, but he still lost his job early in the season last year. Smelley and Garcia will put pressure on him in 2007.
RB: A. Boyd and Davis complement each other very well. They combined for nearly 1,800 yards from scrimmage last year.
WR/TE: B. McKinley was excellent as a No. 2 last year. Who will emerge as the secondary options in 2007?
OL: C-minus. This group struggled last year even with tight end Andy Boyd, who was a good blocker. The interior of the line is undecided at this point.
Breaking down the defense
Overview: Just like the offense, the defense is benefiting from an influx of young talent. South Carolina ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in yardage categories, but kept points off the board. South Carolina allowed 30 points or more only twice last year. The defense should be the strength of the team in 2007. Leading the way is the top linebacker in the conference, Jasper Brinkley. A few freshmen and prep school players will add to a solid core.
Best player: LB Jasper Brinkley. Before last season, Spurrier said players like Brinkley reminded him of those linebackers at Tennessee and Georgia. Spurrier was right. In his first year in the conference, Brinkley became a first-team All-SEC linebacker. The junior college transfer enters his second season as the top linebacker in the conference after making 107 tackles last season.
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Most underrated: S Emanuel Cook. True freshmen like Cook are better noticed at other programs, but South Carolina is more than happy to have him in the secondary. He started five games last year and tied for third on the team in tackles with 47 despite playing in only 10 games. He's not the biggest safety at 5 feet 10 and 216 pounds, but opponents won't think Cook is small after being tackled by him.
Must step up: DT Nathan Pepper. The interior defensive line had almost as much trouble as the offensive line last year. The junior Pepper returns at tackle and should be in good position to excel. He will be reunited with tackle Marque Hall, who missed almost all of last year with a knee injury.
Shoes to fill: CB Fred Bennett. Bennett's shoes are just about the only ones to fill, but they are big ones. The three-year starter is the only regular not to return. Bennett had nine interceptions in three years for the Gamecocks. Promising sophomore Captain Munnerlyn is looking to take over at corner.
Impact newcomer: DT Ladi Ajiboye. The story of the spring for South Carolina was the arrival of four midyear enrollees on the defensive line. A four-star prep school standout, Ajiboye will be in the rotation with Pepper and Hall at tackle.
Position battle: Defensive end. South Carolina already returns Rivals.com Second-team Freshman All-American Eric Norwood and Liberty Bowl MVP Jordin Lindsey at defensive end. With new additions at this position, playing time will be at a premium. Four-star signees Travian Robertson and Clifton Geathers both impressed during the spring.
New in 2007: New faces on the defensive line, along with the return of DT Marque Hall, will be a major boost to a unit that struggled at times last year. Linebacker Jasper Brinkley will make a case as the top defender in the SEC.
Grade the units: DL: B. Influx of talent means the line suddenly has depth.
LB: A. Double your fun with the Brinkley twins. Jasper's brother Casper will play some linebacker this year after playing defensive end a year ago.
DB: B-plus. The loss of Bennett hurts, but corners Munnerlyn and Stoney Woodson each had good springs.
Breaking down the special teams
Overview: South Carolina's special teams play boiled down to one game against Florida when Ryan Succop had two field-goal attempts and an extra-point attempt blocked in a 17-16 loss. Other than that game, the kicking and punting performances were excellent. South Carolina doesn't have a special teams touchdown in two seasons under Spurrier, a fact they hope to change by adding a Beamer – Frank's son Shane – to the staff.
Season outlook with bowl forecast
South Carolina was a surprise team in Spurrier's first season with upsets of Tennessee and Florida. The Gamecocks had no such luck in 2006, but came within a point of beating the eventual national champions at home. With a schedule that includes road games at Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas, South Carolina will have to pull off some upsets to take the next step and compete for the SEC title. After winning conference titles in his third seasons at Duke and Florida, Spurrier may have to wait a year or so before doing it again in the SEC. For now, the Gamecocks will look to upgrade their bowl game to the Music City or Chick-fil-A.
Best player: K/P Ryan Succop. Despite the Florida game, Succop was one of the best kickers in the SEC. He made two field goals of 50 yards or longer in 2006.
Grade the units: K: A-. Succop was 16 of 20 on field-goal attempts last year.
P: A. Succop averaged 43.7 yards per punt in 2006.
KR: B. Munnerlyn (23.2 yards per return last year) will resume duties this year, along with touted freshman Chris Culliver.
PR: B-minus. Culliver will also compete with McKinley for punt return duties.
Breaking down the coaching
Overview: South Carolina is starting to turn the corner in the third season under Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks' recruiting has improved, and they have become increasingly competitive in the SEC. One of the more underrated moves was handing sole defensive coordinator duties to Tyrone Nix before the 2006 season. The defense was solid last year and looks to improve this year. South Carolina added Shane Beamer to the staff as outside linebackers coach and co-special teams coordinator.
Grade the coaches: Head coach: A. He's done it at Duke and Florida, and now he's ready to do it at South Carolina. Few can turn a program around like Spurrier.
Offense: B. Spurrier hasn't had the same talent on offense at South Carolina as he did at Florida, but it's rapidly improving.
Defense: B-plus. Nix is a rising star in the conference.
Special teams: B-minus. Will Shane bring Beamer Ball to Columbia?
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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