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June 25, 2012

Five Questions: South Carolina

In cooperation with the other SEC sites on Rivals.com, we take a look at five questions facing each team as preseason practice approaches. The series begins today with a report on the South Carolina Gamecocks from GamecockCentral.com's Scott Hood.

1. Which players will South Carolina miss the most from last season?: The Gamecocks had two players chosen in the first round of the NFL Draft in late April (CB Stephon Gilmore and DE Melvin Ingram), but they will truly feel the loss of former fifth-year offensive tackles Rokevious Watkins and Kyle Nunn. In their place, USC plans to start redshirt freshman Brandon Shell at left tackle and one of two sophomores at right tackle - Mike Matulis or Cody Gibson.

Hence, South Carolina will lose a lot of experience at the position. Lining up a pair of fifth-year senior tackles is a rare luxury for any football coach, so the Gamecocks could see a drop off at the position, at least initially. In time, Shell, the nephew of Hall of Famer Art Shell, should become an All-SEC tackle; but his first trip through the SEC wars could be an up-and-down ride.

2. Which newcomer will make the biggest impact this season?: Wide receiver Shaq Roland was Mr. Football and the Rivals.com No. 1 prospect in the state of South Carolina for a reason. The 6-foot-1, 173-pounder from Lexington possesses all of the attributes to quickly become a star pass-catcher in the SEC - size, speed, strength and soft hands. The expected departure of Alshon Jeffery to the NFL (second-round pick of the Chicago Bears) leaves a void at one of the outside receiver spots, and Roland has as good of a chance as anybody to win the role. USC has a solid core of smaller, quick receivers with Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington, Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones.

But you need taller receivers as well in order to keep the passing attack diversified against talented SEC secondaries. Right now, the lone options there are D.L. Moore and DeAngelo Smith, neither of whom has yet distinguished himself, and a pair of redshirt freshmen in K.J. Brent and Shamier Jeffery, Alshon's younger brother. So, the door is open for Roland to quickly become one of USC's major contributors in the passing game.

3. What is the biggest question mark heading into preseason practice?: USC faces three important issues in preseason camp: The health of running back Marcus Lattimore; the inexperience along the offensive front, especially both tackle spots; and who will emerge as Alshon Jeffery's successor at wide receiver.

Lattimore missed the final six games of the 2011 season after tearing knee ligaments last October. As expected, he has faithfully rehabbed the knee back to health and is close to 100 percent. However, until he takes a hit in practice, Gamecocks coaches, players and fans will hold their collective breaths.

The Gamecocks started as many as three seniors on the offensive line in 2011. This season, that number could shrink to one. Right now, USC is set to start a senior (center T.J. Johnson), two juniors (one of whom has never started), a sophomore and redshirt freshman. The spring depth chart lists three freshmen and two sophomores at the tackle spots. Will the relative inexperience hurt USC?

The battle to replace Jeffery, one of the most physically dominant wide receivers in the SEC for the past two seasons, should be hotly contested when camp begins. USC has recruited well at the position. Look for several freshmen, including Roland, to get long looks.

4. How does the schedule set up for South Carolina?: The first five weeks of the season seem mostly favorable to USC with a more-difficult-than-it-looks road trip to Nashville to face improving Vanderbilt on Aug. 30, followed by home contests against East Carolina, UAB and Missouri before the biannual game against struggling Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 29. As long as the Gamecocks survive the opener in Music City, the opportunity to open 5-0 will be there for the taking. October, though, brings the pivotal stretch of the season - an Oct. 6 home game against SEC East rival Georgia, consecutive road trips to LSU and Florida, and a home game with Tennessee. Those four games will likely determine whether this season is a success or failure.

But the finishing kick packs a punch as well, with clashes against Arkansas and bitter rival Clemson sandwiching a nonconference game against Wofford. Last season, the Razorbacks thumped USC in Fayetteville, Ark., while Wofford has given the Gamecocks fits in previous meetings. Clemson is a rivalry game, so anything can happen. USC is 18-3 at home in the last three seasons and has built a serious home-field advantage at Williams-Brice Stadium, so seven home games bodes well for the Gamecocks.

5. What is the best-case and worse-case scenarios for South Carolina this season?: If Lattimore bounces back to 100 percent from his knee injury, quarterback Connor Shaw equals his performance over the final four games from last season, and a veteran-laden defense (potentially seven senior starters) featuring possibly the top defensive end duo in the country (Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor) fulfills expectations under new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, USC will contend for the SEC championship and BCS bowl berth. If all the pieces fall into place, 10 or 11 wins in the regular season wouldn't be out of the question.

However, if USC is ambushed by Vanderbilt in the season opener, Lattimore is unable to stay healthy for an extended period, and the inexperience at offensive tackle proves a detriment, the Gamecocks face the very real possibility of starting slowly in September heading into the Georgia-LSU-Florida gauntlet in October. If that happens, USC could find itself battling to stay above .500 when the season heads into the November homestretch. By that point, the season would be regarded as a disappointment, and it would be interesting to see how USC responds to adversity in the rivalry game at Clemson.

For additional South Carolina coverage, visit GamecockCentral.com.

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