Gamecocks hit practice field with unanswered questions

The biggest question the South Carolina football program has faced during the offseason has concerned the return of sophomore sensation Jadaveon Clowney.

That one will be answered Tuesday when the Gamecocks open spring practice. The All-American defensive end is expected to join his teammates at the Proving Grounds despite calls that he should sit out to protect his future NFL draft status. But the Gamecocks still face several tough questions leading up to the 2013 season.

Coming off its best season in school history, a campaign in which they won 11 games for the second-straight year and produced their highest final national ranking, the Gamecocks will try to build on that momentum as they begin preparations for the 2013 campaign.

The ultimate goal of winning an SEC Championship has eluded South Carolina, but the squad will head into spring drills focused on reaching that lofty goal again this season. As one of only four BCS schools, along with Alabama, Oregon and Stanford, that has recorded 11-win seasons in each of the last two campaigns, South Carolina will once again be the hunted, rather than the hunter.

Buoyed by the return of 36 lettermen, including a dozen starters from a team that went 11-2, captured the Outback Bowl and finished as high as No. 7 in the Coaches’ poll, the Gamecocks, under ninth-year head coach Steve Spurrier, have solidified the program to a point where they are able to re-load, rather than re-build. Led by Clowney, South Carolina figures to be one of the favorites in the SEC East and a preseason top-10 candidate.

Once again, the road to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game is a difficult one in which to traverse. However, at least on paper, this year’s schedule appears a bit more manageable, as it does not feature a gauntlet similar to the one the Gamecocks faced in 2012 when they had contests versus Georgia, at LSU and at Florida in consecutive weeks.

Here are the burning questions that the Gamecocks must answer between Tuesday and the season opener against North Carolina:

* With rising senior Connor Shaw and sophomore Dylan Thompson both seeing action late in the 2012 season, which one will step up and be named the starter in 2013?

* With just four scholarship seniors on the roster, who will step up in a leadership role?

* Without veterans like Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles, which of the young running backs will establish himself at the primary ball carrier in 2013?

* With the somewhat surprising early departure of Ace Sanders and no senior wide receivers on the roster, which of the younger wideouts will make an impression and work their way into the rotation this fall?

* What new wrinkles will Deke Adams, the only change on the coaching staff, bring as the new defensive line coach?

* With the loss of five seniors who took nearly all the snaps, how quickly can the young linebacking corps pick up the schemes and gain the coaches’ trust?

* Who will take charge and serve as the quarterback of the secondary following the loss of standout D.J. Swearinger?

* Will Landon Ard or Nick St. Germain take over as the leader in the clubhouse heading into the fall to replace Adam Yates as the Gamecocks’ kicking specialist?

Those and other questions will begin to be answered when the Gamecocks open their spring practice schedule on Tuesday. The allotted 15 practices will wrap up with the annual Garnet & Black Spring Game on Saturday, April 13.

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