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5 Burning Questions Going Into the 2012 Gamecock Football Season: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

What with all this talk about Connor Shaw developing as a pocket passer, it would behoove us to ask: Who's he throwing to? Who's replacing Alshon? You've got questions, we've got answers (so long as your questions coincide with these five...)

5. Who’s number one?

Number one receivers don’t fall like peaches from a shookdown tree, but we’ve been darn lucky to field some real gems in recent years. There was Troy Williamson, the speedster who earned his way to a top ten draft pick (then, alas, went bust.) Sidney Rice is doing big things on Sundays, but we best remember him twisting like a hooked marlin to haul in corner fade TD lobs from Blake Mitchell and Chris Smelley. Are hearts are still heavy for Kenny McKinley, but we’ll always regard him as one of the most prolific receivers to ever step foot in Williams-Brice. And of course, Alshon Jeffery, whose Sportscenter catches and long strides defined the new era of Carolina football.

Alshon’s off pumping gas as I understand it, leaving us with no definitive number one wideout. History would dictate that a new hero will emerge, the next in that great line of 2000s receivers I mentioned above. But who? The obvious candidate is Ace Sanders, who’s been scrappy and reliable as a part of both the receiving corps and the special teams unit. I’d speculate Spurrier brought Ace to media days not only because he’s a thoughtful guy and shining representative of the program, but also as a sort of symbolic vote of confidence. And why not? Ace has shown an ability to shake coverage and snag some not-so-perfect balls. With two years of steady field time under his belt, you have to think he’s going to operate with plenty of confidence.

4. Will we have a jump ball threat?

What did the 2011 Mississippi State and Nebraska secondaries have in common? Both of ‘em got an up close view of Alshon’s armpits. AJ pulled down a jump ball against each--one a go-ahead red zone fade, the other that improbable Hail Mary. Due to Alshon’s length and, how does one say, “sick ups”, our QBs had the luxury of floating parabolas with the expectation of six.
Ace can do a lot of things, but sprouting eight extra inches might be a...TALL ORDER [does this for 45 minutes.] So who will emerge our 2012 go-to for red zone fades and Hail Marys? Based on height alone, three options stand out:

Read on after the jump!

  • D.L. Moore: The lanky Kentuckyian is our tallest receiver at 6’5”. Moore hasn’t been much of a factor in his first three seasons in Columbia, amassing a mere 315 yards. 2011 was actually his weakest campaign, but that could be due in part to the same QB-instability that put the squeeze on Alshon’s numbers.
  • K.J. Brent: The redshirt freshman stands 6’4”, and the word is he’s got impressive hands. He should see the field this year, whether or not he breaks out as a formidable threat.
  • Kwinton Smith: The 6’4” true frosh, Smith was rated a four-star recruit by most agencies and had a staggering offer list (Bama, LSU, Florida, Arky, Auburn and, yes, Clemson.) Due to Shaq Roland’s stature as a WR recruit, we may forget about Kwinton Smith, but it’d be advisable not to sleep on him. In a recent 107.5 The Game interview, Spurrier said Connor Shaw told him, “You can’t overthrow Kwinton Smith!” If that doesn’t get you giddy...

3. Wait, what about Shaq Roland?

Lest we forget, Shaq’s our golden boy and could very well extend that string of dominant receivers we’ve been fortunate to enjoy. I didn’t include him in the list of jump ball threats, but maybe I should. At 6’1”/6’2” (depending where you look) he lacks a few inches on the Too-Tall Joneses listed above, but another 6’2” wideout proved something of jumpball threat in recent years: Alshon Jeffery. His official NFL draft page lists him at 6’3”, but most sites say AJ measured out at 6’2”, and that seems to be the more reliable number going around. Shaq’s a few pounds south of Alshon (no fat jokes, please) but, like Alshon, was a high school hardwood standout. Expect him to pull down a few rebounds on the gridiron. Whether or not he establishes himself as the go-to jump ball threat, we should see Roland to get plenty of looks in 2012. We make the most of our Mr. Footballs ‘round these parts.

2. How are we fixed at tight end?

That’s a teed-up question, because we should be stacked. We’re led by senior Justice Cunningham, who came on strong last year, catching 18 balls and a touchdown. Remember that unlikely ricochet he pulled in early against Clemson? Then there’s Rory “Buster” Anderson, one of my favorite players from last year, an opportunistic then-freshman who scored thrice in eight catches. His big plays are somewhat iconic: the 4th down TD against Tennessee, the that brilliant 55 yarder (mostly after the catch) against Clemson, and the ensuing touchdown grab.

These may be our top options, but Justice and Buster shouldn’t get comfortable. Any combination of lovable RS freshman Drew Owens and true freshmen Jerrell Adams and Kelvin Rainey could compete for playing time. I’d expect one of the true freshmen to redshirt, likely Rainey, since Adams was able to develop in prep school last year and Spurrier's been singing his praises. I predict that tight ends will factor significantly this season, due to our our decidedly smaller and rawer wideout corps.

1. What’s the chances the Gamecocks have a 1,000 yard receiver in 2012?

I’d love nothing more than to see one of our guys rocket to the forefront of the SEC receiver hierarchy, developing a penchant for fireworks and circus catches and giving Connor Shaw a reliable target. But the fact is, we don’t really need that, nor are we built for it. A steady knock on Stephen Garcia was his tendency to force the ball to Alshon. Didn’t matter if Alshon had 6 DBs doing a maypole dance around him, Garcia still might sling it and hope for the best. It’s a recipe for sloppy picks, and we saw more than a few of those during the SG#5 era (and a few that might have been if not for AJ’s ability to create receptions.)

Connor Shaw’s still learning, but has proved a willingness to spread the ball around, involving the Nick Joneses and the Rory Andersons of the world. And don’t forget, we’ve got Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd back, not to mention Alshon’s little brother Shamir who redshirted in 2011. The time Connor’s spent working on his pocket game suggests he’s learning patience, and that will result in check downs and, ultimately, spreading the passing attack. Factor in his ability to scramble and, oh yeah, Latty/Miles/Wilds/et al, and there’s really no reason we should have to rely on any one receiver for our offense to thrive. While we may get three or four beyond 500 yards, but I’d be surprised if any one player eclipses the 1000 yard mark.