College Sports

FIVE REASONS WHY USC WILL, OR WON'T, BE BETTER IN 2008

Kenny McKinley's abilities will be crucial to the Gamecocks if they expect to be successful next season.
Kenny McKinley's abilities will be crucial to the Gamecocks if they expect to be successful next season.
FIVE REASONS THE GAMECOCKS WON'T BE BETTER

1. WHAT'S MY LINE?: Winning football begins up front and this season was futile in each area. Although the defensive line is stocked with talent, it was the first obstacle hurdled by the opponent and led to the SEC's next-to-worst rushing defense. The offensive line could never hold constant protection and contributed to the SEC's worst rushing offense. Of their stellar recruiting class last year, only two (Quintin Richardson and Kyle Nunn) were offensive linemen.

2. TAKING THE SNAPS: Thanks to this year's ever-revolving starting quarterback situation, neither Chris Smelley nor Tommy Beecher ever solidified the backup spot behind Blake Mitchell, although Smelley started five games. With Mitchell gone and the Gamecocks needing a quarterback, someone needs to rise to the top in spring practice. Smelley's got the experience and Beecher is the oldest, but expect redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia to win the job. The kid's got talent, but it's still unproven talent.

3. KICKING AND SCREAMING: For all the strength Ryan Succop has, this season showcased a few bad moments. Succop proved he could drop it between the uprights from almost anywhere, but when he really needed to make a kick (for a comfortable lead at North Carolina, a second overtime-producing kick at Tennessee), it didn't happen. As a senior next year, Succop has the place-kicking job entrenched, but if he's going to keep punting as well, he's got to improve. Those running pooch kicks have been a disaster since Day 1 and although it's not Succop's responsibility to punt-block, having two punts stuffed against Clemson put USC in a big hole.

4. SLIPPED AWAY: Left in the carnage of this year's five-game season-ending losing streak was a troubling point -- this could have been the Gamecocks' best chance to win the SEC East. After the Gamecocks beat Georgia, they couldn't take advantage of a middling Tennessee team or beat Vanderbilt. Only Kentucky seems to be a team on the slide next year while the rest of the teams will be as strong or stronger than they were this year. USC also has to play LSU and a rebuilding Arkansas team.

5. ATTITUDE: Spurrier's been harping on attitude or effort since he arrived and although he's won 21 games in three years (extremely successful by USC standards), he's had to keep stressing the same points. The Gamecocks still have only one conference championship in school history and are a mediocre program, yet don't seem concerned with ever repeating the former or shedding the latter. Recruiting kids who have won throughout high school hasn't seemed to work too well so perhaps the approach once they get to Columbia needs to change.

1. THE CATCHERS: USC has a definite No. 1 and No. 2 receiver next year in Kenny McKinley and Dion Lecorn, with a solid group of options behind them. McKinley shouldn't be going pro, which gives whichever quarterback wins the job a definite go-to guy, and Lecorn sparkled as a freshman, earning a starting spot midway through the year. Jared Cook, Moe Brown, Freddie Brown and Weslye Saunders will provide depth and experience to a group that's easily the most talented of any of USC's positions.

2. SECONDARY: Despite suffering near-crippling injuries, USC's defensive backs flirted with the nation's No. 1 pass defense ranking all year. True, opponents hardly ever had to pass because the Gamecocks' run defense was so bad, but when the ball was in the air, USC stood a good chance of knocking it down. Two of the biggest reasons why -- All-SEC selections Captain Munnerlyn and Emanuel Cook -- return and freshman Addison Williams got a lot of playing time this year.

3. THIS IS THE END: Defensive end Eric Norwood made the All-SEC team after developing into a pass-rush specialist, although his numbers dropped from the North Carolina game on this year. Still, Norwood's the kind of player that brings those uncoached intangibles to every play -- motor always running, finds the ball, makes the big plays. Who knows what would have happened if just one or two other defensive players had mimicked Norwood's intensity this year?

4. NO MORE MITCHELL: Blake Mitchell had his moments at USC, winning a lot of games in his three years but also becoming known for his erratic career. He seemed to be the kind of guy that would always get the Gamecocks close to winning a big game -- but invariably, something would happen, USC would lose and there'd be that one play Mitchell had to make that didn't happen. Steve Spurrier gave him chance after chance but Mitchell never could quite stay under center. Not saying the players behind him are any more talented, but it's not like the Gamecocks have a choice to play Mitchell anymore.

5. ON THE TRAIL: Last year's recruiting class proved USC could bring in big-name talent and this year should be no exception. Even without a recent season selling point, Spurrier, David Reaves and the rest should be able to tell kids what they want to hear -- come be a part of a building contender. At last count, 15 recruits had given a verbal nod to play for the Gamecocks next year, and 12 were rated at least three-star players by Rivals.com. Local Gamecock fans already know one of the four-star recruits -- Chester's C.C. Whitlock committed last week and plans to enroll in January.

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