January 3, 2008

Look Back, Look Ahead: Wide Receivers

The wide receiver position in 2007 can be summed up in five words.

Kenny McKinley and everybody else.

You can't blame McKinley for the fact only four of the top 11 pass catchers for South Carolina in 2007 were wide receivers. The other seven included three tight ends, two running backs and two fullbacks.

With few deep threats, USC featured a shorter passing game this past season. The Gamecocks averaged 12.0 yards per completion in 2007 compared to 13.4 yards in 2006, a 10.4 percent reduction.

That statistic must improve in order for Steve Spurrier to have the confidence to completely implement the vertical offense he cherishes.

McKinley set a school single season record with 77 receptions this past season, and is now just 16 behind Sterling Sharpe (169) for the all-time career mark.

In some contests this past season, McKinley was USC's only deep pass receiving threat, making his accomplishments all the more remarkable. He had 36 catches, nearly one-half his total, in the final four games, including a career-high 14 receptions against Tennessee.

When the regular season ended, McKinley led the SEC in receptions (77), average receptions per game (6.42) and receiving yards per game (80.7), and earned First-Team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches.

If McKinley matches his production from this past season in 2008, he will leave USC with 230 receptions, 61 more than Sharpe. That's quite impressive for a guy who didn't play a down at wide receiver in high school.

Of course, there remains the question whether McKinley will declare for the NFL Draft. The deadline is still a couple of weeks away, so USC fans will have to hold their breath until then.

However, all indications are McKinley will be back with the Gamecocks in 2008. He's insisted for several months that he would return for his senior campaign, and nothing at present appears to contradict those claims.

Skeptical fans will, of course, point to former USC wide receiver Sidney Rice, who left after last season with two years of eligibility remaining, but McKinley is a different type of receiver as well as four inches shorter in height.

In short, NFL scouts are not infatuated with McKinley as they were with Rice. There's something about 6-foot-4 receivers that can leap to the moon.

McKinley was literally a one-man gang at wide receiver until the emergence of Dion Lecorn midway through the season. The rising sophomore from Ocala, Fla. didn't have a reception in the first four games before finally getting his chance against Mississippi State.

Lecorn made the most of his opportunity, finishing with 27 receptions, two more than McKinley had as a freshman in 2005. Sixteen of his 27 catches came in the final three games, including eight against Arkansas and five against Clemson.

Lecorn earned his shot largely due to his outstanding blocking skills rather than his passing-catching acumen. But once he stepped on the field, he proved adept in both areas.

If McKinley returns, he and Lecorn could form a formidable duo in 2008, possibly one of the best in the SEC. They combined for 104 catches this past season. Next season? About 120 to 130 receptions are not out of the question.

Freddie Brown had 17 receptions as a sophomore in 2008, giving him 31 for his career. Brown developed into a reliable third receiver behind Rice and McKinley in 2006, and he remained in that role this past season.

Brown is a quality medium-range possession receiver. However, he's not a downfield threat, so it's likely he'll remain a No. 3 type receiver in the final two seasons of his career.

Another wide receiver that came on late in the season was rising junior Moe Brown, who had eight of his 13 receptions in the final three games. He had two catches for 37 yards in the season-ending game against Clemson after totaling four catches in the loss to Florida.

Junior college transfer Larry Freeman arrived at USC last spring with much fanfare. He started strong but soon faded into the background when fall practice opened. He finished with just two receptions for 30 yards. He'll have to fight to remain on the depth chart.

One of the key questions heading into spring practice is whether Freddie Brown, Moe Brown and Freeman will be able to hold off a quartet of talented redshirt freshmen that includes Jason Barnes, Mark Barnes, Matt Clements and Joseph Hills, as well as rising sophomore Chris Culliver, who returned kickoffs in 2007 but didn't catch a pass while he learned the system.

Culliver averaged 23.8 yards for 34 kickoff returns as the USC coaching staff sought to take advantage of his blazing speed. He nearly went the distance on a couple of returns and it may be only a matter of time before he takes one the length pf the field.

However, Culliver, who played defensive back and special teams in high school, is still grasping Spurrier's complex system, which is why he didn't step on the field much with USC's offense in 2007. He started the Tennessee game in place of Lecorn when the coaching staff sought to get more speed on the field.

He ran a few reverses, but that was about it.

Both Charlotte's Jason Barnes and Richland Northeast High School's Mark Barnes were expected by many USC fans to make immediate impacts at wide receiver. But it didn't happen.

As is typical with most young receivers under Spurrier, they initially struggled to grasp the system. Subsequently, injuries derailed their seasons, making the decision to seek medical hardships an easy one.

Jason Barnes made his only reception against S.C. State and started the next week against LSU, but didn't play the rest of the season. Mark Barnes had two receptions against S.C. State.

According to USC's official statistics, Mark Barnes appeared in the Mississippi State and Kentucky games, but he's still eligible to receive a medical hardship under the new NCAA rules which provide a player may redshirt as long as he appears in less than 50 percent of his team's games.

Joseph Hills, a lanky 6-foor-4 receiver from Palmetto, Fla., stepped on the field briefly this season but didn't register a catch. His progress stagnated when he suffered a knee injury on the first day of fall camp. It took weeks before he was able to return to practice.

By all accounts, Hills is one of USC's most talented young receivers. Now healthy, he'll get the opportunity to showcase his considerable skills during spring practice.

Matt Clements of Naples, Fla. redshirted this past season. He'll battle to climb the depth chart in spring practice. He showed flashes of his skills during fall camp.

PROJECTED SPRING 2008 WIDE RECEIVER ROSTER:
Jason Barnes
Mark Barnes
Moe Brown
Freddie Brown
Matt Clements
Chris Culliver
Larry Freeman
Joseph Hills
Dion Lecorn
Kenny McKinley


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