1. WILL THE DEFENSE RISE TO THE CHALLENGE?
The Gamecocks were a middle of the pack defensive team in 2011. There is every reason to be concerned that the defense could take a step back in 2012. Why? The Gamecocks lost a ton of starters from the 2011 team, including AJ Davis, Jawaan Booker, Monte Lewis, Jack Jackson, Jameson Wadley and Rodney "Big Texas" Garrott. That's six starters and some really good ones (Davis and Lewis both signed with NFL teams).
Unfortunately, several players that were slated to step in to replace these guys are either injured or no longer with the team. Clemson transfer Desmond Brown, who might have started at safety, is no longer on the roster. Ked Wolfe, who was likely going to start at defensive end, is no longer on the roster. Finally, redshirt freshman Martez House was slated to start at defensive tackle and went out with what may be a season ending injury. If you count these players as lost starters, the Gamecocks have lost 9 defensive starters in the last year.
The latest depth chart certainly raised anxiety levels among pessimistic fans. Mike Whittier, a 220 pound former quarterback/ reserve linebacker, is the starting defensive end. Brooks Robinson, another former quarterback and former starting safety, is listed as a starting linebacker, a position he has never previously played. Rashod Byers, who played running back last year, is now a starting cornerback. To put the icing on the cake, when House went down, the Gamecocks inserted redshirt freshman Adam Wright as the backup nose tackle, even though he had spent the entire camp working on the offensive side of the ball.
However, there does not appear to be any panic in Jacksonville. The players appear to be growing more comfortable in the second year under defensive coordinator Chris Boon's complicated scheme. Further, while the defensive line is young, one insider told us that they could be very good as the season progresses. The secondary has a lot of experience and appears to be very deep. For example, Denzell Bynum and Keginald Harris, who have both started before are listed as backups at corner and safety respectively. Transfer, Trub Buxton, who started as a true freshman at corner for Western Michigan has yet to crack the two deep.
Finally, the Gamecocks have at least three potential stars on defense, led by Pierre Warren, a bona fide playmaker at safety. Warren simply glides across the field. At linebacker, Spiderman Smith, an equally accomplished rapper, leads a young, but talented group. And, as young as the defensive line is, they are led by the pride of Elba, Alabama senior Dimetrio Tyson who has proven himself in big game environments.
In closing on this point, Chris Boone and Coach Crowe have been optimistic about the defense in recent media interviews. Lets see if that optimism was justified.
2. HOW GOOD CAN THE OFFENSE BE?
For every question mark on defense, there is an answer on offense. The quarterback position is loaded with two game changing players, Marques Ivory and Coty Blanchard. Ivory is in good shape and should benefit from sitting in the coaches box last season. Blanchard has not shown any rust after playing baseball all summer.
The Gamecocks have never been deeper at running back, with Washaun Ealey, Coot James, Buster Pope and several other talented players. The running game will be boosted by a veteran offensive line that has a ton of career starts between them and two players who have earned all conference honors at one time or another (Tori Mobley and Odie Rush). At tight end the Gamecocks have a three headed monster with Denzell Cheeks, Luke Smith (Navy transfer) and Gavin Ellis (Troy State transfer) all vying for playing time.
The biggest question mark on offense for the Gamecocks is wide receiver. JSU suffered a devastating preseason loss when future superstar, Markis Merrill, went down with a knee injury. Trey Smith, a transfer from Western Michigan, will miss the Arkansas game. But, we must keep hope alive. The Gamecocks receiving corps will be led by Alan Bonner who was rated as one of the top 100 pro prospects among small college players. Another returning veteran is Kevyn Cooper , Marques Ivory's cousin, and a hero of the Ole Miss game.
There are two x factors at wide receiver. The first is Country Chambers. He has demonstrated that he is one of the preeminent return men in the country, but he needs to become a big play wide receiver for the Gamecocks to truly succeed. Finally, you don't want to get too excited about a true freshman, but Telvin Brown has really turned some heads.
3. CAN WASHAUN EALEY AVERAGE 7 YARDS PER CARRY?
Last year, after a slow start, Washaun Ealy began to dominate, averaging over six yards per carry including over 100 yards against SEC foe Kentucky. Ealey's year was particularly notable because he did it behind a patchwork offensive line. The Gamecocks went into 2011 losing several key veterans (Curt Porter, Tyler Ogletree and Justin Kay), then disaster struck. Pre-season all OVC Odie Rush was lost for the season with a knee injury and offensive guard, Matt Jones play was severely limited by knee injuries that ultimately ended his career. Several players were rushed into action- perhaps a year earlier than the coaches would have liked.
This year is a different story. Every starting offensive line has proven his mettle in game conditions. Rush and Mobley are battle tested and will not be intimidated in Fayetteville. One coach described guard Blake Burks as a "road grader." Max Holcombe is everything you want out of a center. Finally, Tarik Milner was good enough at tackle that Coach Adam Ross moved Mobley to guard. Finally, the Gamecocks are two deep at every line position with veterans such as Tee Hardin, Colt Kennedy, Preston Hatcher, Tree Johnstone and Clay Squires all ready to step in if duty calls.
Back to the point. If Ealey ran for 6 yards per carry behind the 2011 line, seven yards per carry behind what should be a much improved offensive line is realistic for 2012. In addition, Ealey's conditioning and attitude are vastly improved since he arrived at the Friendliest Campus in the South.
4. WHICH OF THE FABULOUS FRESHMAN MAKES THE BIGGEST IMPACT?
The 2012 signing class has created some buzz. Running back, Troymaine a/k/a Buster a/k/a "Nascarlife Pope", is a guy that is capable to taking it to the house everytime he touches the ball. As mentioned, Carrolton product, Telvin Brown has emerged as a big play threat at wide receiver. On the defensive side of the ball, watch out for JR Hough (pronounced Huff), a Lovejoy product that will appear in nickel and dime packages. Even though he is not a freshman, Baylor transfer Sean "Real Papa" Watson, is ready to hit somebody after not playing his first two years of college football. On special teams, we may hear a Thunder from Down Under, as Australian Hamish Maccines, plays his first down of American football at punter.
5. CAN THE GAMECOCKS "FINISH THE DRILL?
The inability to hold big leads has plagued JSU for the past couple of years. If the Gamecocks can improve in this area, by getting a first down when they need it on offense and getting that key stop on defense, it should be a good year.