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August 29, 2011

Filling in the depth chart



South Carolina is set to begin the season in five days and the holes are beginning to be filled. The No. 12 Gamecocks know or at least have a strong idea who will play where, barring any surprises over the next few practices.

USC didn't have many holes in the preseason depth chart but there were a few questions. As the season-opener nears, answers seem to have been provided.

QUARTERBACK

Steve Spurrier insists that the battle between fifth-year senior Stephen Garcia and sophomore backup Connor Shaw is ongoing, despite many outside of the team thinking that barring a complete catastrophe, Garcia will get the ball for his 29th straight start. Garcia does have the edge in experience and in proving his worth on the field, but Shaw has had a better preseason camp, or at least numbers-wise in the scrimmages.

There is some hesitation on the actual numbers, since Shaw has been going against the second-team defense a lot, but each quarterback has faced the first-team D in almost-equal scrimmage snaps. Garcia said the first-team defense's ability was something he couldn't say on television, leading to some of the problems, and also said he didn't pay any attention to the numbers because just as always, he doesn't view the job as his.

A safe bet would be that Spurrier picks Garcia to start. Shaw will play, but there's too much to lose by giving Shaw his first career start on the road, especially if East Carolina gets the ball first, scores and the Gamecocks have to play catch up. The phrase goes, "Dance with you brung you," and Garcia can calmly direct the offense from the start. With Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery in place as well, Garcia doesn't have to try to force anything.

FULLBACK

There really wasn't a competition, per se, since each of the top two fullbacks were injured in the early going of preseason camp. Dalton Wilson and Matt Coffee were 1-2 on the depth chart and each has been practicing for two weeks now, with Wilson probably better to catch a short pass and Coffee being better at bulldozing through enemy linemen.

Look for Wilson to have the role. Even if the coaches don't employ the role as much as they did when Patrick DiMarco had the spot, Wilson is a very capable blocker and has a slightly better knowledge of the playbook than Coffee. While a bit of an unknown commodity at catching the ball, if all goes well, Wilson won't have to do it. But he's confident he can if asked.

RIGHT DEFENSIVE END

As good as Jadeveon Clowney is and will be, the job will be Melvin Ingram's to start. Ingram is a fifth-year senior and led the team in sacks last year, despite really playing only half of each game. He's extremely talented in his own right and with Clowney able to also line up behind the line, the Gamecocks can come at the Pirates in several ways with their pass-rush.

It's also a chemistry thing. It doesn't seem the coaches would put Clowney ahead of Ingram to start, even if they have designs to do it later in the season. This way, the senior gets the chance to lock down the spot and if the freshman beats him out, so be it. But at least he has that chance. Ingram's no pity case, either, and this way he's rewarded for his role over the past four years and given a chance to stick.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Or, "the other defensive tackle," since Travian Robertson has one spot sewn up. It seems that Aldrick Fordham has performed well enough in camp to stay in the spot beside Robertson. The other candidates there are Byron Jerideau and Kelcy Quarles, with J.T. Surratt also lurking for time.

Jerideau will play, but even with as much weight as he's lost and for the improvement he's shown, it doesn't seem likely that he'll be an every-down tackle. Quarles will be a player in the future, and may edge Fordham later in the year, but is still learning the playbook.

CORNERBACK

Like above, the "other cornerback," since Stephon Gilmore is entrenched at one spot. It's been a concern throughout camp due to injuries and suspensions, but the Gamecocks received good news last week when Akeem Auguste was deemed OK to practice. He's been getting back into full contact, and Ellis Johnson said that as long as Auguste gets all of his reps and practices in until Saturday, he could start.

It still doesn't seem likely that Auguste will start, though. With that kind of injury (foot arch), going too hard too fast may re-aggravate it and cause him to miss more time (the staff is only too cognizant of what happened with Shaq Wilson last year). If he's 100 percent, sure, Auguste could play, but if not, go with the safe bet of starting C.C. Whitlock. Whitlock, Johnson said, has had an up-and-down camp, but he could start with Auguste always on standby to go in at the first sign of trouble.

KICKOFF SPECIALIST

While Landon Ard has been getting some recent practice reps, it seems that Jay Wooten will be the guy. He did it for the great majority of last year. If he gets worn out from doing that and place-kicking, perhaps there will be a change, but he won't get worn out in the first game.

PUNTER

Really the most glaring opening as the Gamecocks enter their first game week. Special teams coach John Butler has said that Patrick Fish and Joey Scribner-Howard are in a dead heat, with Fish able to place punts more consistently and Scribner-Howard able to drive them a bit further.

Scribner-Howard may be the choice because he's been around longer and has the stronger leg. Then again, it may come down to what's needed at certain times in a game - more yards or field-placement? A truly open battle.

PUNT RETURN

Gilmore should get the first shot, as he's the most experienced and the coaches aren't worried about over-using him. Ace Sanders at first, then perhaps Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd, may follow, but Gilmore fits Butler's idea of what the returner should be.


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