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South Carolina Preview: Gamecocks, Spurrier Prepare to Turn Corner After Down 2014

The ol’ ball coach is feisty and the season is still almost a month away. Good sign for South Carolina fans?

Maybe so. But then something has to be different this year with the Gamecocks after a serious stumble from the standard that Steve Spurrier and USC had established for the previous three seasons, all ending with glossy 11-2 records.

Stung by close-call losses, the Gamecocks finished 7-6 in 2014 with a 24-21 victory over Miami in the Independence Bowl salvaging a sub-.500 season. There were high spots –namely beating Georgia in a memorable early-season showdown. But blowout debacle against Texas A&M to begin the season and a resounding 35-17 loss to Clemson to finish the regular season left Carolina with two lingering black eyes.

So Spurrier did what great coaches do and found out where changes were needed. He brought in long-time confidant in Jon Hoke to be the defensive co-coordinator and, well, the ol’ coach got feisty.

Whether it was at SEC Media Days where Spurrier always holds court or an impromptu media gathering a few weeks later when he took umbrage with an Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist, the Gamecocks’ coach showed he is ready to come out swinging.

Now we’ll see if some of that attitude from the still-energetic 70-year-old legend rubs off on a team that has some major questions to answer in 2015.

 

KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS

TB Brandon Wilds: With his chance finally at hand after playing a backup role to Mike Davis, Wilds should be a centerpiece for the Gamecocks’ offense. He ran for 570 yards and four touchdowns last season and gave a snapshot of what he can contribute with a 143-yard performance against Tennessee in November. Four years ago, Wilds stepped into the spotlight when injuries decimated Carolina’s backfield and showed a glimpse of what he could chime in with this season with a pair of 100-yard days against Tennessee and Florida.

QB Connor Mitch: After the Gamecocks lost gunslinger Dylan Thompson, Mitch looks the part of the heir apparent – a highly recruited QB who has been around the program for two years. But he will have to win the job in a battle with former walk-on Perry Orth, redshirt freshman Michael Scarnecchia and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez. Mitch was one of the more ballyhooed QB recruits in the Class of 2013 after a dazzling final season at Wakefield High in Raleigh, N.C.: 4,661 passing yards and 63 touchdown passes to finish his career 12,078 yards and 153 scoring strikes.

QB Michael Scarnecchia: Spurrier has avoided using two quarterbacks for most of his illustrious career, but that doesn’t mean the threat hasn’t always been there – especially in the starter’s mind. Mitch was solid in the spring game with 180 passing yards, but Scarnecchia was almost perfect, connecting on 10-of-12 passes for 162 yards. Could that add up to two QBs getting snaps? Certainly seems like a possibility early in the season.

 

KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS

LB Skai Moore: After a disastrous season on defense last fall, the Gamecocks might want to crumple up the blueprint and start from scratch, but the one guy that has to be at the heart of whatever USC does is the talented Moore. He led the club with 93 tackles last season and also snared 3 interceptions for a crew that struggled to create turnovers. He is the pacesetter for a defense that has to improve in nearly every area after hovering near the bottom of all of them last season. With Hoke – a Dom Capers’ zone-blitz disciple – in place, Moore could be more of a factor in the pass rush on blitzes.

S/NB T.J. Gurley: Much like Moore, Gurley needs to be central in the game plan for Carolina, particularly against the spread/read-option offensive schemes that have invaded the SEC. Gurley is versatile, has a nose for the ball and will deliver a blow – he ranked second to Moore with 80 tackles last season and is moving to more of a fluid position where he can sniff out plays instead of being limited to the structure of a traditional safety spot. If the Gamecocks can cure one of their biggest problems and apply more pressure on quarterbacks, Gurley could be the benefactor as a rover in the secondary looking for rushed and errant passes.

 

KEY SPECIALIST

PK Elliott Fry: The Gamecocks’ offense goes into the season with a lot of uncertainty, so scoring points whenever the chance is there is a must, and that makes the steady Fry a hugely important cog. He has booted 33 field goals in his two seasons. Last year he converted 18-of-25 3-pointers, with three misses from 54 yards or longer and was all but automatic from 35 yards in. As much as Spurrier might want to avoid relying too much on a kicker, that might be a strength he has to utilize in 2015, especially until the QB situation stabilizes.

MOST IMPORTANT GAMES

Oct. 3 at Missouri: Not many pundits expect Carolina to contend for the East Division crown this fall, but getting to September with only a loss and then going on the road and knocking off the two-time winner of that half of the SEC could be a huge shot in the arm.

Nov. 7 at Tennessee: Since Spurrier arrived, his teams have shown a knack for hanging with the traditional SEC East heavyweights (Georgia and Florida) and that’s one of the main reasons the Gamecocks became an annual factor in the division race. Well, now Tennessee seems to be poised to rejoin the conversation after several seasons in SEC purgatory. Carolina might need to re-establish solidify its seat at the big table, especially after losing to the Vols last season.

BEST/WORST CASE SCENARIO: 9-3 or 5-7

That feistiness from Spurrier? Part of it was a vow that the Gamecocks are going to be a better team than a lot of people think. If he’s right, then the notion of returning to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game isn’t totally far-fetched in what appears to be a wide-open East Division race. To do that, Carolina has to hold serve at home and likely win at least three road conference games. On the flip side, if the USC offense takes a step backward and the defense isn’t leaps-and-bounds better, every game in the first half of the schedule could be thorny challenges and struggling through those could be demoralizing.

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