South Carolina had a strange 2011 season. Senior quarterback Stephen Garcia started five games before being booted off the team. He was replaced by sophomore Connor Shaw, who proved to be more of a runner than the QBs Head Coach Steve Spurrier usually employs. As a result, star wide receiver Alshon Jeffery’s production dipped drastically. And to top it all off, big time running back Marcus Lattimore tore his ACL and missed the final six games of the season. Somehow, through all of that, the Old Ball Coach coaxed his team into an 11-2 season and a Capital One Bowl victory. Jeffery has departed, but Spurrier, Shaw and Lattimore, along with several other key contributors return. Here’s a look at The Gamecocks’ top draft eligible players this season. Underclassmen are designated with an asterisk…
Marcus Lattimore* RB 6’0 218 – Lattimore was the nation’s top rated running back recruit out of high school – a real coup for Steve Spurrier and his staff. Lattimore didn’t disappoint as a freshman, rushing for 1197 yards and 17 touchdowns and adding 29 catches for 412 yards and two TDs through the air. As a sophomore, he gained 818 yards and scored ten TDs in just seven games. An October knee injury cut his year short, but he is expected to be ready for the start of the 2012 season. Lattimore is a big, patient runner. He’s not a burner, but he runs downhill. He’s a solid pass protector and an excellent receiver out of the backfield. And while he is coming off of the ACL tear, Lattimore has a smooth, not sudden, running style that generates change of direction from his hips and core. He isn’t out there making Barry Sanders-style jump cuts, so he has a good chance of returning close to his previous form and keeping the knee intact. If healthy, Lattimore will surpass 600 career carries and this will likely be his last season suiting up for the Gamecocks.
Akeem Auguste CB 5’9 188 – The diminutive Auguste was the 14th rated cornerback coming out of high school…in 2007. He spent the year at Fork Union Military Academy, before enrolling at South Carolina in 2008. By his sophomore season, Auguste had worked his way into the starting lineup. He was moved to free safety as a junior, where he made 58 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a sack. Last season, Auguste suffered a foot injury in fall camp and it wrecked his entire season. Back for the 2012 season, after being given a medical redshirt, the man who’s been around seemingly forever will move back to corner for his final season. Auguste is tough and versatile, but he’s not a ballhawk. In 36 career games, he’s never intercepted a pass and he’s only deflected nine others. With his size and skill set, Auguste will never be an outside corner in the NFL. He’ll need to demonstrate ability to cover the slot and play special teams if he’s going to make it at the next level.
D.J. Swearinger FS 6’0 210 – Swearinger is the reason Auguste is moving back to corner. With superior size and a better nose for the ball, Swearinger is simply the better fit at safety. In his Gamecocks career he’s split time between both safety spots, but he figures to settle in at free for his senior season. Last year, Swearinger made 80 tackles, intercepted three passes, broke up three others, and forced a fumble. The year before, he returned an interception for a score and broke up five passes on the season. Swearinger is a hard hitter who wraps up when he tackles, rather than just going for the kill shot. He appears to read and react pretty quickly to the action, which allows him to get there as (or soon after) the ball arrives. If he can hone that skill and make a few more plays in coverage, Swearinger will be a valuable commodity and will move up draft boards.
Devin Taylor DE 6’8 267 – For a minute it seemed as though Taylor would throw his name into the ring for the 2012 draft. But instead the fifth-year senior opted to return for his final season. As a sophomore in 2010, Taylor tallied eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss, and returned an interception for a touchdown. Last season, his production dipped to five sacks and seven tackles for loss, but he added a second career interception return touchdown against Arkansas. Tall and lanky with a thin lower body, Taylor is a finesse player who can get pushed around by big offensive linemen. He doesn’t appear strong enough to be an every down defensive end; and while he has good straight-line speed, he looks a little stiff at times. Taylor’s first step off the snap is inconsistent and he doesn’t take advantage of his reach to keep linemen off of him. He’s a decent athlete who can run sideline to sideline, and he knows how to use his height to disrupt the passing game. But Taylor would be wise to add bulk and leg strength, and to diversify his pass rush moves, or he may be relegated to being a situational pass rusher and special teamer.
Also keep an eye on: DeVonte Holloman SS/OLB 6’2 241, Shaq Wilson ILB 5’11 224, T.J. Johnson C 6’6 319