SCOUTING REPORT A problem has stalked Steve Spurrier during his time at South Carolina: The Gamecocks can win big games, but they struggle to handle success. They can stun Ole Miss and start SEC play 3-2, as they did two years ago, then lose four of their final five. They can upset Alabama, their marquee win last year, then a week later let an 18-point lead slip away in a loss to Kentucky."We had to really play well when we won those crucial games," the coach says, adding, "and sometimes you don't always play your best."Now the defending SEC East champions embark on a season in which their roster is loaded with enough talent to build on their success, but it's easy to wonder if that momentum will once again slip away.Spurrier can count on some things: Sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore, loaded up with 16 extra pounds from off-season workouts, is generating Heisman talk after a 1,197-yard Freshman of the Year season. And junior Alshon Jeffery, the SEC's leading receiver last year with 88 catches and 1,517 yards, is among the nation's best. A defense that played soft in key moments in 2010 should be better. South Carolina has one of the SEC's top cover men in All-SEC junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Adding the nation's top high school recruit, Jadeveon Clowney, to a line that already features two of the SEC's top four sacks leaders (Melvin Ingram and Devin Taylor) could allow the Gamecocks to more aggressively pressure offenses into misfires."We can potentially be pretty good," Spurrier says, "if our quarterback situation plays out well."Ah, the quarterback situation. Fifth-year senior Stephen Garcia threw for 3,059 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, but his two spring suspensions (he now has a total of five, at least two involving alcohol) sent the program into months of soul-searching over whether Garcia should play?let alone lead the team. He has been cleared to participate in summer practices, but his status for the fall is not yet determined.Sophomore Connor Shaw completed nearly 70 percent of his passes in spot duty as a freshman and drew praise this spring, but his leadership is untested. And that "genuine leader," Spurrier says, is what South Carolina needs most to keep moving forward.
THE BIG IF With a strong pass rush and a top-notch cornerback in Gilmore, can the Gamecocks' defense create big plays?
TELLING NUMBER 17.2 -- All-purpose yards per touch for Alshon Jeffery last season, third most in the nation among returning players.
KEY RETURNEES Alshon Jeffery, WR, Jr. -- Coming off a spectacular sophomore season in which he led the SEC and set South Carolina single-season records in catches and receiving yards, Jeffery will pair with returning tailback Marcus Lattimore to help give the Gamecocks one of the league's most potent offensive combinations.
Marcus Lattimore, RB, So. -- Lattimore was one of the most impressive freshmen in the country last season, transforming South Carolina's offense with his powerful running style. He rolled up 1,197 yards and 17 rushing scores.
Ace Sanders, WR/KR, So. -- The quickest receiver on the roster, with 4.41 speed, Sanders made an impact last season with 25 catches for 316 yards and two touchdowns to earn a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team. The diminutive (5-7) wideout is a big-play threat and can be a dangerous return man.
Devin Taylor, DE, Jr. -- Taylor established himself as one of the SEC's top pass rushers during a breakout sophomore season in which he led the Gamecocks' linemen with 46 tackles, including 12 for loss, and 7½ sacks.
Stephon Gilmore, CB, Jr. -- Gilmore led the Gamecocks in picks (three) last season and was also effective against the run and on the blitz, making six tackles for loss and three sacks.
BREAKOUT PLAYER D.J. Swearinger, SS, Jr. -- Improving the pass defense will be a key to the Gamecocks' success, and Swearinger will need to play a huge role. He likes to hit, had big games against Auburn (four tackles and a forced fumble) and Alabama (nine tackles), and he took back an interception for a touchdown against Troy. In the spring he earned the team's best defensive player award.
TOP RECRUIT Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Fr. -- The nation's top-rated recruit brings to Columbia the mouthwatering combination of a powerful and athletic 6-6, 250-pound frame driven by 4.6 speed. He toyed with high school defenses as a senior, with 29½ sacks and 11 forced fumbles.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.
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