What to Watch for During Spring Practice: Wide Receiver and Tight End

Streeter Lecka

The Gamecocks return a core of experienced playmakers at the receiving positions.

As with tailback, the Gamecocks are fairly entrenched at the starting receiver and tight end positions despite losing star receiver Bruce Ellington to the NFL Draft. Shaq Roland is the current starter at X and should be the Gamecocks' go-to receiver this year. Damiere Byrd, who approaches his senior season having steadily improved his game during his time at Carolina, is the starter at B. Nick Jones is the backup at B and will likely continue to see plenty of snaps while the versatile Byrd moves around the three receiver positions. The least experienced starter is Pharoh Cooper at Z; Cooper came on strong late last season, albeit more so as the wildcat QB than as receiver. Rory Anderson and Jerrell Adams remain the two ends, with Anderson listed as starter but Adams sure to get plenty of snaps spelling Anderson as well as in two-TE sets.

It's always worth keeping an eye on Roland's dedication level given some of his past issues, but Roland, Byrd, Jones, Anderson, and Adams are largely known quantities at this point. They're in the "please don't get injured" group for spring practice. That means that out of the players I've mentioned, Cooper is the one to watch most closely this spring. The coaches obviously have a lot of confidence in him based on his performance thus far, as they've already penciled him in as starter over a player who has been in the program longer, K.J. Brent. Still, while Cooper has already shown his play-making propensity, I'll be curious to get a sense of how well he understands Steve Spurrier's complex passing offense after a year in the program, as well as if he's capable of being physical when needed.

The other players to watch at the position are the backups. Obviously, Jones is the backup most likely to see the field frequently, but Shamier Jeffery, K.J. Brent, and Kane Whitehurst are also in the position to earn playing time. After a strong spring, Jeffery was an item of frequent discussion during the off season in 2013, and he appeared to be working his way towards earning a spot in the rotation by continued strong play in fall camp. However, reversion to poor work ethic habits he showed early in his career caused him to fall out of the coaches' favor by the end of the regular season. He ended on a relatively high note, though, earning some snaps in the Capital One Bowl after performing well during bowl practices. The athleticism, physicality, and play-making ability are all there with Jeffery; with him, it's simply a matter of whether he can focus for an entire season. If he can, he could earn time spelling Roland at X.

Brent presents a unique case because, with the departure of Kwinton Smith, he's our only truly tall receiver, making him potentially useful if we want to pick on a smaller corner or work a jump ball in the end zone. Brent has several years in the program at this point and has looked good in practice, so, despite the fact that he's never been able to climb to the top of the depth chart, we can feel fairly confident in his ability to play competently if he is needed.

Whitehurst is another to keep an eye on. After being a hot topic of conversation during fall camp, Whitehurst looked like he might convert the hype into reality when he caught a touchdown early in the opener against UNC. However, after that point he went the way of other practice legends such as Bryce Sherman before him, only rarely receiving significant snaps. That may change if he continues to play well, though.

The other receiver to watch who's on campus is Jody Fuller. Although a highly touted recruit in the 2011 class due to his athletic ability, Fuller hasn't shown consistent hands so far. He may be staring down one of his last opportunities to prove that he can contribute at this level. If he has a lackluster spring, he may soon go the way of Kwinton Smith.

Lastly, keep an eye on third-string tight end Drew Owens. Owens is a very solid player who would likely receive more playing time on many SEC teams than he does at Carolina. He's simply buried for the time being behind Anderson and Adams, two of the conference's best tight ends. Owens is a bit more like Justice Cunningham than the two players ahead of him in that he's known for his blocking ability. However, he's shown the ability to haul in receptions when needed. He probably won't play a huge role this year unless Anderson or Adams suffer injuries, but if he continues to develop, he may have the opportunity to play a bigger role during his senior season in 2015 after Anderson graduates. I would say you might look out for Owens playing h-back, but the coaches are likely saving that role for incoming freshmen Kevin Crosby or Joe Blue.

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