Gamecocks hit practice field with high hopes for encore

After establishing a number of “football firsts” in 2011, now the big question for the Gamecocks becomes: “What will they do for an encore?”

South Carolina opened practice Friday after after scoring its first 11-win season, earning a final Top-10 ranking in both the Associated Press and USA TODAY Coaches’ polls and BCS Standings and six SEC wins. Those feats have only raised the bar on the Gamecocks’ expectations in 2012.

With 42 lettermen returning, including 13 starters from a team that went 11-2, captured the Capital One Bowl and finished as the number nine team in the country, the Gamecocks are poised to battle for another SEC Eastern Division title in 2012. But the road to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game will be as tough as ever.

In addition to the traditional week-to-week grind of competing in the toughest conference in the country, the SEC has added Missouri to the East and Texas A&M to the West, increasing the number of teams in each division to seven. While keeping with an eight-game conference slate, the schedule makers did Carolina no favors this year, as their two Western Division opponents are LSU and Arkansas, two teams that finished in the Top-5 in the country last season.

The Gamecocks will begin the 2012 season with a road conference test at Vanderbilt on Thursday, August 30. A pair of home non-conference games follow, with East Carolina and UAB set to make trips to Columbia. The Gamecocks’ conference home opener is slated for September 22 when the Missouri Tigers come calling in the “Battle of Columbia.”

A road trip to Kentucky wraps up the month of September. Carolina faces what appears to be a stiff gauntlet in October with home games against Georgia and Tennessee sandwiched around a pair of road tilts at LSU and Florida. The final SEC regular season contest will see Arkansas visit Williams-Brice Stadium for Homecoming on November 10. The final two regular season games will feature non-conference in-state rivals Wofford and Clemson.

The Carolina offense officially returns seven starters, including many of the key playmakers from last season’s squad that averaged over 30 points and just under 400 yards of total offense while using a balanced attack. Gone are record-setting wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who skipped his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, a pair of offensive linemen in Terrence Campbell and Rokevious Watkins, and walk-on starting fullback Dalton Wilson. Offensive tackle Kyle Nunn and wide receiver Jason Barnes also saw considerable action during their Gamecock careers.

Led by Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw, who has won eight of his nine career starts, the Gamecocks return 89 percent of their rushing yards, 64 percent of their passing yards and 66 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago. While the final play-calling will remain in the hands of the Head Ball Coach, Shawn Elliott and Steve Spurrier Jr. were promoted in the offseason to co-offensive coordinators.

Coaching changes are the most noticable difference from last season. Gone are assistant coaches John Butler, Jay Graham, Jeep Hunter and Ellis Johnson, along with strength & conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. Head coach Steve Spurrier feels he has put together another solid staff however, adding Kirk Botkin (linebackers/Spurs), Grady Brown (secondary), Joe Robinson (special teams/tight ends) and Everette Sands (running backs) to the staff, while promoting Lorenzo Ward to run the defense and Joe Connolly to monitor the strength program.

The Gamecocks will have 26 more days to adjust to the new coaching crew before opening the season with a tough SEC road test at Vanderbilt on Thursday, Aug. 30.

Photo courtesy of USC Athletics

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