By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
South Carolina Gamecocks 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC
Spring practice: Mar. 13-Apr 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 6
Passing: Connor Shaw, 65.4%, 1,448 yards, 14 TD, 6 INT
Rushing: Marcus Lattimore, 163 car., 818 yards, 10 TD
Receiving: Ace Sanders, 29 rec., 486 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: D.J. Swearinger, 80
Sacks: Jadeveon Clowney, 8
Interceptions: D.J. Swearinger, 3
Redshirts to watch: OL Brandon Shell, DT Phillip Dukes, LB Edward Muldrow, TE Drew Owens, LB Cedrick Cooper, W Shamier Jeffery, FS Sheldon Royster
Sept. 1 at Vanderbilt
Sept. 8 East Carolina
Sept. 15 UAB
Sept. 22 Missouri
Sept. 29 at Kentucky
Oct. 6 Georgia
Oct. 13 at LSU
Oct. 20 at Florida
Oct. 27 Tennessee
Nov. 3 Bye Week
Nov. 10 Arkansas
Nov. 17 Wofford
Nov. 24 at Clemson
Offensive Strength: It may just feel weird to say this, but the running backs are the clear strength of Steve Spurrier's offense. Assuming Marcus Lattimore returns to form, Spurrier will boast the most talented running back in the nation as well as a rising sophomore who posted three 100-yard games in Lattimore's absence last fall. Toss in a quarterback who carried 135 times and, according to NCAA stats, technically led the team in yards per game (52.5), the 'Cocks have plenty of people to carry the football.
Offensive Weakness: Just how productive those backs will be depends on filling some holes along the offensive line. There is plenty of talent here to work with, but replacing 31 starts up front, including first-team All-SEC left tackle Rokevious Watkins, won't be easy.
Defensive Strength: It only took South Carolina two decades, but this defensive line has a decisively SEC-feel to it. It has turned into a year-in, year-out strength for a program that has only been to one SEC title game. Despite losing Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson, this defensive line is stacked. Combine that with only one departing linebacker, and Carolina boasts one of the best front sevens in the nation.
Defensive Weakness: The secondary will have to be almost completely reworked, however, that may not be as terrible as it sounds. Stephon Gilmore was a solid player but never built on his solid early production. C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett also depart at corner.
Spring Storylines Facing the Gamecocks:
1. The health of Marcus Lattimore. The guy who will get the most attention this spring for Carolina might not play a single down in spring practice. The former National Freshman of the Year and likely first-team preseason All-American running back is returning from ACL surgery. He will begin to push the knee more this spring — with lateral movements and cutting — but it isn't worth risking a setback with any contact or team drills. This team went 5-1 with him out of the lineup last year, but with the best back in America fully healthy, this team could easily challenge for an SEC title.
2. Lorenzo Ward is now the sole owner of the defensive coordinator position in Columbia after two very successful campaigns with the Cocks. With Ellis Johnson moving on to take the Southern Miss head coaching position, the onus to continue South Carolina's stellar play falls to Ward. The bad news is the departure of leaders Melvin Ingram, Rodney Paulk and Antonio Allen. The good news is the defensive line is abosolutely stacked, the secondary is deep and the linebackers are talented. Finding a new 'Spur,' filling voids at corner and linebacker will be key. How will Ward put his stamp on a defense that finished third nationally in total defense (behind only Alabama and LSU) and 11th in scoring defense — or should he change much at all?
3. Despite the loss of Allen, D.J. Swearinger, the team's leading returning tackler and intercepter, returns with DeVonte Holloman to form a solid safety tandem. Holloman should slide into the Spur position vacated by Allen because there is loads of depth behind them. Look for redshirt Sheldon Royster to get plenty of reps with Swearinger still recovering from foot surgery. Yet, the cornerback position lost Gilmore, Whitlock and Markett, so filling these voids is key this spring. Getting Akeem Auguste back healthy on the field will help, but much will be expected from names like Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree — who shifts over from safety. Even linebacker Edward Muldrow could see time in the secondary. There is plenty of upside and potential in this group, but it also features a lot of moving parts at the moment. This spring should go a long way to fitting the pieces together.
4. A.J. Cann and T.J. Johnson return to the offensive line and will control the interior of the trenches, be it at guard or center for Johnson. The other three spots on the offensive line must be solidified this spring. Cody Gibson and Will Sport will likely compete for the right tackle job while Kyle Harris, Kaleb Broome and freshman Clayton Stadnik should add plenty of depth to the interior. Stud recruit Brandon Shell is the guy the coaching staff is likely rooting for to win the left tackle gig. With Mike Matulis, Brock Stadnik and Travis Ford all missing time with injuries, finding depth and organizing the offensive line two-deep will be important. This is the portion of the team that seems to have held Carolina back over the last decade, so an SEC title could, literally, be on the line.
5. The development of the passing game. With the running backs healthy, and should the offensive line develop, the passing game then becomes the focus. Connor Shaw has had his share of struggles but also proved late last fall that he is clearly the future of the position. His athletic ability was never the problem, but as the season progressed he proved his arm was developing as well. Through his first five starts A.G. (aka After Garcia), Shaw tossed 44 incompletions while connecting on just over 60% of his passes. Over the final three contests, he threw only 14 incomplete passes for a completion rate over 75%. He will enter his junior season as the unquestioned starter and brings stability to a position that has lacked maturity for years. Look for Shaw to filter through a talented but undistinguished receiving corps this spring, and, most importantly, stay healthy. He and his receivers will have to prove this fall they can win games when teams stack the box to stop Lattimore.
Related Content Links
SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
2012 Very Early SEC Predictions
Athlon's Very Early Top 25 for 2012
2012 Recruiting Rankings: No. 19 South Carolina
College Football's Top 10 Spring Storylines for 2012