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April 17, 2006

Five predictions for the USC offense in 2006

FIVE PREDICTIONS FOR THE GAMECOCKS OFFENSE IN 2006

The South Carolina offense operated with greater efficiency during spring practice this year as quarterback Blake Mitchell and the rest of the offensive unit grew more proficient with Steve Spurrier's complex offense. With the return of Cory Boyd and the growth and maturation of several players who saw significant playing time as freshmen last season, the USC offense could put up some impressive numbers this season.

With spring practice now in the rear view mirror, here are five predictions for the USC offense in 2006:


CORY BOYD AND MIKE DAVIS WILL BECOME A FORMIDABLE BACKFIELD COMBINATION

Mike Davis finished the 2005 season with strong performances against Clemson and Missouri, so we knew what he could do carrying the football when the offensive line did an adequate job run-blocking.

The biggest issue coming into the spring was whether Cory Boyd could recapture the form he showed in 2004 when he rushed for 309 yards and caught 35 passes. The answer from the 15 spring workouts is a resounding yes.

Boyd was dynamic in the spring game, bolting 71 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the Garnet team's third possession of the game. He finished with 87 yards on five carries.

"We knew Cory Boyd could run like that," Spurrier said. "That was a big-time run he made for 71 yards and a TD. Cory has speed, quickness, toughness, good team leader. He's ready to really help us. He's improved his speed. Physically, he's really improved since I got here. He looks like a big-time back."

His ability to catch the football out of the backfield far exceeds any running back on last year's roster. This skill will force teams to think twice when it comes to double-teaming Sidney Rice on the outside. If they do, Boyd should find plenty of open space on the perimeter.

There is no question Davis, named the spring's Outstanding Running Back, improved greatly this spring over the form he showed for most of the 2005 season. Some of that may be attributable to Boyd, who showed up for spring practice in great shape and with the intent on challenging Davis for the starting tailback job.

Davis took the bait.

"Mike Davis has had outstanding scrimmages and he's done very well," Spurrier said.

Both Davis and Boyd was so impressive that soon after spring practice started Spurrier began developing formations and schemes to get both players on the field at the same time.

"Obviously, Cory Boyd and Mike Davis are going to be our two top tailbacks," Spurrier said. "But Bobby Wallace is a good quick guy in there also."


CADE THOMPSON WILL SEE PLAYING TIME IN 2006 AND BECOME A CAPABLE BACKUP TO BLAKE MITCHELL

Cade Thompson may have closed the gap between himself and Blake Mitchell with his impressive performance in the spring game but Mitchell, based on his consistent performance throughout the spring and his superior knowledge of the offense, still retains a sizeable lead in the quarterback race.

Even Spurrier acknowledged Thompson sent a message when he completed 10-of-13 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

"Cade put himself in position (to say) 'hey coach if you're ready put me in there in I'll be ready to play,'" Spurrier said. "We'll have to see how it plays out. Blake is still our starter. But it's encouraging that Cade showed that if something happens he'll be ready to play. We thought he would be. We'll try to get Cade as ready as possible."

Granted, Thompson started the spring as the best bet to emerge as the primary backup and his performance in the Garnet and Black game reinforced that status. And he still needs to add about 10 pounds before Spurrier, whose offensive scheme forces the quarterback to take punishment from rushing defensive players, will throw him into battle.

But based on his comments following the spring game, there is no doubt in Spurrier's mind that he will be able count on Thompson when he plays in 2006.

"Cade has put himself in position to get a shot if the opportunity arises," Spurrier said.


THE STARTING OFFENSIVE LINE WILL BE BETTER THAN PEOPLE EXPECTED

Heading into spring practice, the USC offensive line was the target of considerable scorn. But few were laughing when spring practice was completed.

Even Steve Spurrier was pleasantly surprised at the strong performance of the first-team offensive line during spring drills. He even went so far to say that this year's offensive line should be just as good as last year's, which could be interpreted as either a compliment or an indictment.

"I think we're going to be okay on the offensive line, I really do," Spurrier said. "We'll be just as good as last year, maybe better."

While many people thought last year's offensive line was adequate, it clearly underperformed considering three of the five regular starters were seniors. But tackle Jabari Levey and guard Freddy Saint-Preux were mediocre at best while Na'Shan Goddard played well at times.

Based on his comments this spring, Spurrier was clearly unhappy with how the offensive line performed in 2005. Although less talented, he believes this year's edition will be perform as well if not better than last year's line.

Gurminder Thind, barely on the coaches' radar screen last season, was a pleasant surprise at left tackle. He may have become the best pass blocker in the group.

"Gurminder did some good things this spring," Spurrier said. "We were impressed there."

Thomas Coleman, expected to receive a scholarship before the start of the season, and Chris White adequately held down the left guard and center positions, respectively.

The right side of the line is less solid with the inconsistent and injury-plagued James Thompson and junior Jamon Meredith, who started four games last season.

"(Thompson) has done a little bit better," Spurrier said. "He needs a good off-season of getting quicker and lighter on his feet and learning his assignments a little bit better. But James has improved quite a bit."

Both Thompson and Meredith will be challenged by junior college transfer Clarence Bailey and a large incoming freshmen class when fall camp opens in early August.


SOMEONE WILL STEP UP AND JOIN SIDNEY RICE AS A LEGITIMATE PASS-CATCHING THREAT

This may be blasphemous to say but the broken left thumb that forced All-American wide receiver Sidney Rice to miss the last week or so of spring practice turned out to be a blessing in disguise for USC on two fronts.

First, it forced quarterback Blake Mitchell to look for - and possibly learn the names of - other Gamecock receivers. Last season, the second half of the bowl game being the best example, Mitchell too often locked on Rice and tried to force the ball into double coverage.

Kenny McKinley had an excellent spring catching the football and appears right now to be the best bet to emerge as the legitimate second receiver for USC. McKinley had his moments last season, the Tennessee game being the best example.

But there are other candidates as well. Noah Whiteside is entering his senior year and certainly wants to conclude his career on a positive note after an injury-riddled 2005 season. He caught four passes in the spring game for 68 yards and a touchdown.

Mike West was dynamic at times after switching over from defense. West, one of the fastest players on the team, brings a speed dimension to the wide receiver position that USC lacked last season. But he's still learning the position and experiencing the typical ups and downs after making the transition from the outside linebacker role he filled last season.

"He needs to make more plays," Spurrier said. "He has a tendency to drop passes. But we'll keep coaching him and we'll keep working with him. If he catches a whole bunch of balls this summer, hopefully he can be sure-handed. He's got to make a few plays when the ball comes his way."

Cory Boyd had 35 catches as a running back in 2004 prior to his season-long suspension. If he can duplicate that number, USC will possess multiple pas-catching threats.

Redshirt freshmen Freddie Brown and O.J. Murdock enjoyed solid performances in the spring game, so they could become factors as well.

"Freddie played better than we thought," Spurrier said. "That's why you have spring games and scrimmages. He seemed a little quicker out there. I think he caught everything he touched."

The bottom line for the receivers is this: unless someone steps up to become a consistent pass-catching threat, opponents will double-team Rice, limiting his effectiveness. The guess here is that someone will.


THE TIGHT END POSITION WILL BECOME RELEVANT AGAIN

The biggest surprise of spring practice may have been the play of junior tight end Robert Pavlovic, who was mostly used as a blocker last season.

Pavlovic caught nearly everything thrown his way this spring and showed an ability to gain yards after the catch, earning praise from coaches and teammates alike, including Mitchell.

Jared Cook, a redshirt freshman, is more talented than Pavlovic and could beat the Canadian out for the starting job.

If Andy Boyd can make a successful return from his November knee surgery, that would give USC three solid players at the tight end position. Boyd appeared in just two games last season before hyperextending his right knee in the Georgia game.

The combination of a healthy Pavlovic, Cook, and Boyd would constitute a vast improvement over last season when walk-on Carson Askins, who is no longer with the club, was the leading receiver at tight end with seven catches.

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