COLUMBIA, SC - NOVEMBER 12: Ace Sanders #9 of the South Carolina Gamecocks is tackled after making a catch by Jaylen Watkins #14 of the Florida Gators during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
One of the constants of Steve Spurrier's tenure at USC has been the typically outstanding play of the wide receivers corps. We've had a number of notable stars during this time. In 2005-2006, Sidney Rice and, to a lesser extent, Kenny McKinley took the SEC by storm. After Rice's departure to the NFL, McKinley became the focal point of the passing offense, breaking several career records in the process. In 2009, we began the season with some question marks at the position, but Tori Gurley and, later, Alshon Jeffery emerged as high-quality targets. Gurley and, especially, Jeffery continued their excellent play in 2010, the year when the Gamecocks offense as a whole came of age. Jeffery became a household name this year. The passing offense struggled in 2011, but Jeffery was still a second-round draft pick, and Ace Sanders also provided a quality target. Carolina has also been blessed with some excellent pass-catching tight ends during this time, particularly Jared Cook and Weslye Saunders. Many of these guys have gone on to NFL careers, with Rice being the most successful so far.
Much like in 2009, the Gamecocks have question marks at these positions going into 2012. Jeffery is gone to the NFL, as is Jason Barnes. All other players who caught passes last year return, but that doesn't include anyone who caught for over 400 yards. Two of the guys with over 100 yards receiving are runningbacks (Marcus Lattimore and Brandon Wilds). The Gamecocks should have improved play at quarterback given Connor Shaw's maturation over the course of the last few games of 2011, but who will Shaw throw the ball to?
Luckily, as with 2009, the Gamecocks do have some (albeit unproven) solid options. Sanders caught for over 300 yards last year at the slot position. He was particularly impressive over the final few games of the season, making big, impressive catches deep down field against Florida and The Citadel. On both of those plays, he showed the ability to get separation and then make a tough catch in stride. Bruce Ellington has also shown flashes of brilliance. He's certainly a very elusive player who is capable of getting open and then of doing things once the ball is in his hands. Much like Sanders in 2011, I expect him to make a leap to the next level in 2012.
We're also very solid at TE. Both Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson played well last season, with Cunningham excelling in a blocking role (but also catching some big passes) and Anderson excelling catching the ball. I was particularly impressed with Anderson's ability to break tackles and gain yards after the catch. He seems to have the kind of vision necessary to excel on the drag route, which is one of Steve Spurrier's favorite plays. Carolina also has a handful of other guys who could make a contribution at the position. Drew Owens, who many thought was better than Anderson coming out of high school as part of the 2011 class, was a breakout player in spring ball and looks to see the field this fall. And then we have some incoming freshman who are very talented.
With a TE corps this deep and questions at WR, I think there's a good chance (at least I hope there's a good chance, because I love these formations) that we'll see some two-TE sets this year, or at least some sets where Cunningham comes out of the backfield and Anderson or Owens is on the line of scrimmage. Cunningham's blocking ability would make him a good lead blocker for Shaw, Lattimore, and our other runners (particularly important for what will likely continue to be a fairly running-oriented offense), while this lineup also give us a dangerous down-field threat from the guy on the line of scrimmage. We had some success in 2010 with Patrick DiMarco playing the modified FB / TE role, and we have the personnel to do so again this season. Of course, this formation will work better if Anderson and Owens continue to improve as blockers.
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The big question, though, remains whether or not we can find someone who can step up and replace Jeffery as the team's featured receiver. Sanders is one candidate, but while I think he's primed for a more featured role this season, he's a more smaller guy (he's 5'8) who's more fitted for the traditional slot role in the Spurrier offense--reverses, bubble screens, and throws down field. He's not the kind of guy you generally look to when you need eight yards in traffic for a first down or a corner catch from the red zone. Not that I don't think Sanders is capable of making those catches on a regular basis, but Jeffery, in addition to his vaunted big-play abilities, was a big, strong target who could come down with jump balls and then gain a couple of yards after the catch while dragging a couple of safeties. Sanders simply isn't built to do some of those things; his lack of height requires him to create more separation when he's making plays down field.
The other obvious choice is incoming freshman Shaq Roland, who was a consensus top-10 player at his position (Scout rated him fourth-best). At 6'1, Roland is not quite another Jeffery in the size department, but he is more fitted than Sanders (or Ellington or Damiere Byrd, another burner who will likely play a much bigger role this year) to play Jeffery's role in the offense. Like Jeffery, Roland also possesses soft hands to go along with solid height.
The question mark with Roland, though, is that he comes in with a small frame and has been criticized for his consequently average blocking ability and his inability to make catches in traffic. Because of this, I'm not sure if he's quite as ready to make a major impact as Jeffery was in 2009. He will undoubtedly make an impact this year, but it might take a year of work in our strength-and-conditioning program before he's ready to step into his anticipated feature role.
A wild card choice for a bigger role in the receiving game is D.L. Moore. Going back to 2009 when he made a memorable TD grab against Vandy, Moore has shown flashes of brilliance catching the ball, and he's always been one of the best blocking receivers on the team. However, he's never been a featured part of the offense, and he caught only five balls last season. That said, he's continued to work hard and improve his game, and he had a breakout performance this spring. I could see him coming out of nowhere to become a much bigger name around the conference. He has all the physical tools, and while he came to Carolina a lanky player whose game was rough around the edges, he's grown into his body (he's now listed at 6'5 / 198) and improved the finer points of his approach during his time here.
Given some of the questions I've raised here (Sanders / Byrd / Ellington too small; Roland too raw; Moore unproven, etc.), it's worth wondering whether or not any of these guys is going to step up and have a 1000-yard-type season. However, another thing that you have to consider when wondering about our receiver production in 2012 is Shaw's ability to distribute. After years of watching the talented-but-erratic Stephen Garcia use Jeffery as something of a crutch, we've likely become accustomed to believing we need a Jeffery-like player to succeed in the passing game. However, while Shaw lacks some of Garcia's physical strengths and needs to improve his pocket presence, when given time in the pocket, he's shown a distinctly un-Garcia-like ability to pick apart a coverage and deliver an accurate ball. (See the Kentucky game, where ten players caught passes, although some of those were thrown by Dylan Thompson and Andrew Clifford.) You don't need a guy who can make a catch in double coverage when you have a QB who can find the guy who is left open due to the double coverage.
This is to say that we may not need an Alshon Jeffery this season, as much as it would have been nice to have the big guy for one more season. Jeffery was notable for his ability to do it all--he made catches in traffic, gained yards after the catch, he was a vaunted red-zone target, and could make the 80-yard TD reception, etc. We might not have anyone on the roster who can do that right now. However, we have a variety of talented pieces in place who are capable of making plays game-in, game-out. That means that Spurrier has the set-up he needs (including a smart QB) to get creative with the playbook. Maybe we won't have a 1000-yard receiver, but we might have a handful of guys in the 400-800 range, and if we have that to go along with a strong running attack (a near certainty unless the offensive line collapses), we can have an excellent overall offense. Don't forget that many of Spurrier's best Florida teams were more noted for the receiving corps than a single star.