Steve Spurrier came to South Carolina with hopes of competing for SEC championships. He talked about USC having everything it needed to be competitive with the big teams in this conference. It's taking a bit longer than I think he hoped for but the 2010 season has put in place a foundation that should be propel USC to continued success. As the title suggests, is there hope for USC in 2011? Let's take a look at what's coming back and the opportunity for USC to repeat as SEC East champions and take a step forward.
1.) USC Returns A Lot Of Talent
South Carolina has a lot of talent that will come back for the 2011 season. There are plenty of players responsible for USC's success this season who are such young players. You've got guys like Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, Ace Sanders, Devonte Holloman, Devin Taylor, and Stephon Gilmore that all can play for another few years at least. You surely will lose some early to the NFL if they continue to perform like Jeffery but the future is bright for South Carolina. They have 7 starters returning on offense including QB Stephen Garcia, RB Marcus Lattimore, WR's Alshon Jeffery and DL Moore, and OL Kyle Nunn, TJ Johnson, and Rokevious Watkins. They'll lose WR Tori Gurley to the NFL but can be replaced in the lineup with Jason Barnes, who has starting experience, and guys like Ace Sanders, Lamar Scruggs, and Demario Bennett. The offensive line will have Terrance Campbell to step in at the Guard spot for Garrett Chisholm. I think the big question will be who is the Tackle opposite Kyle Nunn. There are several freshman candidates like Cody Gibson and Corey Robinson on the roster already with incoming talent like Brandon Shell. I think this is your main battle for the South Carolina offense in 2011 during the spring. Every other position seems set and that's good news for a USC offense that flourished this season with a renewed running game and experienced leaders. I expect the USC offense to be even better in 2011.
Defense will be able to match the offense with 7 starters as well. The starters coming back are DL Travian Robertson and Devin Taylor and DB's Stephon Gilmore, Devonte Holloman, Akeem Auguste, Antonio Allen, and CC Whitlock. The defensive line will take a hit losing Cliff Matthews and Ladi Ajiboye. Both players provided great ability to get to the QB and were tough, hard-nosed football players. The good thing is they return Travian Robertson, Melvin Ingram, and Devin Taylor. Ingram was one of the top leaders in sacks for USC and should slide into a starting role either at DE or DT. Other players expected to push for playing time in the spring are Chaz Sutton, Byron Jerideau, and Kelcy Quarles(who enrolls this month). USC will lose both LB's Tony Straughter and Josh Dickerson to graduation but they have some options on the bench that should fill in nicely. Shaq Wilson should return from injury in 2011 and will most likely take a starting spot on the outside. Quin Smith has been a guy that has improved both seasons at USC and should be one to benefit in 2011. He's a big hitter with good size and quickness and is capable of filling out a starting role. Qua Gilchrist will need to improve his game in order for USC to have solid LB group. He's a JUCO enrollee who saw limited time in 2010 but needs to be ready for a bigger role. USC's secondary is returning everyone. This could be a good or bad thing considering how bad they were in 2010. I fully expect this unit to be better in 2011. These are talented players who are capable of being one of the best units in the SEC. Another offseason of learning and training will benefit guys like CC Whitlock, Marty Markett, and Victor Hampton. If this group improves just a little bit then this defense could really take off next season.
2.) The Coaching Staff Remains Intact
I believe this is the first season in a few years where USC is expected to have every coach back. They've gone through some offensive line coaches as Shawn Elliott finished up his first season as OL Coach after Eric Wolford left after the 2009 season and John Hunt was fired after the 2008 season. It helps the players out tremendously when they can continue to practice and get better in the same system instead of changing from one's coaches thoughts and opinions to another the next season. Our offensive line should benefit from having Elliott around another year as he's quite an intense character with his raw emotions but he's a great offensive mind. The offense will have another year of GA Mangus and his input and I think this benefits a guy like Stephen Garcia. He's improved so much over the past few years under Mangus's guidance and 2011 should be no different. I really think we'll see the best Stephen Garcia yet.
Ellis Johnson and Lorenzo Ward have some work on their hands with the USC secondary but I know those guys will get the job done this offseason. They will find ways to simplify and instruct the USC secondary during spring practice and enabling them to be better players. The USC special teams might need some revamping but Shane Beamer has the bloodlines for it to happen. Hopefully an influx of new talent will find some players capable of making things happen in the return game and in coverage on kickoffs and punts.
3.) Recruiting Brings New Faces In 2011
South Carolina has been all over the Southeast looking for new talent to come in and make a better Gamecock program. They've even made in-roads up north in New Jersey thanks to GA Mangus. USC has some talented players committed already. Damiere Byrd, Brandon Shell, Shon Carson, Gerald Dixon, Gerald Dixon Jr., and Brison Williams are just some of the names USC has been able to land so far. Byrd is expected to be the speed needed for special teams and could provide another option at WR for this offense. Shon Carson could be the big play threat at RB most teams have. He's a smaller, shifty back capable to breaking off a big touchdown run. Getting him on campus instead of the MLB Draft(where he's expected to be a top prospect) is a must for USC. The Dixons and Williams will add some depth to the USC defense soon enough. Williams may be thrust into a playing role when he steps onto campus from prep school.
USC also has some of the biggest names in recruiting left on their board. They are the lead candidate for all-world DE Jadeveon Clowney. People may say Alabama stands the best chance or Florida State but I feel USC has everything Clowney needs in a college. If they are able to land him then he's a favorite to start at DE opposite Devin Taylor and it instantly becomes one of the best DE combo's in college football. He's that good. Other prospects that USC is after are players like Phillip Dukes, Sheldon Royster, Tanner McEvoy, Jerrell Adams to name a few. The talent level has really improved the past 2 seasons and this recruiting class should continue to build towards greater success starting in 2011. I think some of these guys are instant playmakers and will see the field in 2011. It'd be hard not to from the talent they have like Royster, Clowney, and Byrd. I like the way this team evaluates talent and have found plenty of under-the-radar prospects early that other schools jump on later in the game. McEvoy is the perfect candidate. Everyone wanted this guy at WR. USC comes in and decides he'd make a fantastic QB in the offense we run. McEvoy goes on to have a fantastic year at QB and then other schools follow suit and offer him as a QB prospect. It's things like this that show me just how good this staff is at evaluating talent and it gives me hope for the future.
4.) South Carolina Has A Taste Now
Nothing makes you want to win more than coming close to something special. USC accomplished some great things this year. They reached the 9 win plateau for only the 3rd time in school history. They beat the likes of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and Clemson in the same season. They finally won an SEC East division title. All these statistics should tell you that USC had a great season. However I've got one that will make them work harder in the offseason. 56-17. Auburn defeated USC 56-17 in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta and while it's an accomplishment to get there, USC now knows what it feels like to be close and have gotten the taste of victory in their mouth. I think Spurrier will use this on the recruiting trail and during the spring practice to make his team better and give them the hunger to want more. Everyone knows Steve Spurrier loves winning. It's a proven fact. He hasn't had the success at USC he wanted but he's got that fight and hunger inside him to make us better. He wants to see this thing through and I expect Spurrier to be at USC another 4 years or so and to have an SEC Championship under his belt. It's high aspirations for a program that is middle of the road in the grand scheme of things. I can see the wheels turning and you can feel a different type of USC football team. We've got the right staff in place. We've got some of the best players in the conference and continue to bring in more through recruiting. We've given it time and I think time finally started to show for USC in 2010. Look for 2011 to be a glimpse of what USC can do going forward.
It's always hard to predict the future. Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen. We've seen that plenty of times at USC. There have been glimpses of progress only to revert back to the same old story. What makes this any different? I'm not sure. It's just a feeling. As down as I was about the bowl game, I have to remind myself of what we have here at USC right now and what we did in 2010. We dominated #1 ranked team in the nation. We went on the road in a hostile environment and won the SEC East title after getting destroyed the week before. We beat our rivals for the second year in row for the first time in 40 years.
Things are different. You can feel it. I think the patience of Gamecock nation will be rewarded even more in 2011 than it was in 2010. I just hope everyone is ready. The bandwagon still has some seats left. Ready to jump in?