1.) What are reasonable expectations for Stephen Garcia this season? Is he ready to be an impact player in a positive way, and if not, will he ever be?
I think reasonable expectations for Garcia are for him to become an efficient quarterback. If he can put up numbers that place him somewhere around the fifth or sixth best quarterback in the SEC statistically, then I'll be happy with him. He has the talent and the supporting cast to do that, and this is still a Steve Spurrier offense we're talking about, so statistically finishing among the worst quarterbacks in the league will be indicative of complete failure considering that Spurrier will surely give Garcia the chance to throw a fair amount. However, Spurrier and company have said that we plan to run the ball a bit more this year, and if we're successful doing that, then Garcia won't need to be Sam Bradford or anything. He'll just need to keep his head on straight, make the throws he needs to make, and avoid hurting the team with interceptions. Most of what he's been doing so far in practice would seem to suggest that he's capable of doing these things, but of course we'll have to wait until Thursday to find out. Our quarterbacks haven't played well in the past few openers, so it's hard to be too optimistic for Gamecocks fans. Still, I think the general feeling around the program is that we'll be at least a little better under center than we were last year. That comes from a combination of better practice performances and a new quarterbacks coach with a good reputation.
The question of whether or not Garcia will ever make it if he doesn't do well this year is an interesting one. Most of the time, quarterbacks that don't come into their own sometime during the sophomore years never do. Garcia is something of a special case because he was so far behind in terms of learning the offense when he first took the field last year, so it may take him a little longer than usual to develop. Still, if he's bad this year, it'll be hard to be too sanguine about his chances for improvement in 2009. And it will bode ominously for the program in general, as we don't have any great backups and, even if we did, Garcia's failure would be a pretty black mark on the ability of this staff to develop quarterbacks. On the other hand, if Garcia is better than average this year, I think there will be a lot of hype for him in 2010.
2.) Tell us a bit about some of the skill position guys you think will be significant contributors on Thursday.
The Gamecocks will sport an almost completely new-look backfield that I'm excited to see. Last year, Mike Davis and Eric Baker got most of the carries. This year, we project to run a deeper rotation, with Brian Maddox, Jarvis Giles, and Kenny Miles getting most of the carries. Maddox played pretty well in the late-season losses to Clemson and Iowa last year, and I'm excited to see him get his crack at being the featured back. Another guy to watch out for is Bryce Sherman, who you may have heard of over the last few weeks. Sherman is a former track runner that has been tearing it up in practice. He's kind of like Trindon Holliday of LSU. He's the fourth-string running back right now, but I expect Spurrier to try to get him the ball once or twice and see if he can break a long run.
3.) There's been some turnover within the coaching staff--does that worry you going forward, or do you think those changes are for the best?
The change that worries me is the departure of special teams coach Ray Rychleski. Rychleski is widely considered one of the best in the business, as indicated by the fact that he took a job with the Indianapolis Colts. After we lost a couple of games due to poor special teams play in 2007, Rychleski immediately helped us field pretty good coverage units and kicking games last year, so I hope we don't see a drop off. Our current special teams coach is Shane Beamer, son of Frank. He has the pedigree, but he was also the coach in the less-than-memorable 2007 campaign, so the jury is still out on him.
I'm pretty happy with the changes at the other spots. The most significant is likely that Spurrier fired former offensive line coach John Hunt and hired former Illinois line coach Eric Wolford, who has been getting rave reviews. Offensive line has probably been the biggest problem for us over the past couple of years, so if Wolford has really effected major improvement, the results could be significant, all other factors being equal.
4.) Is the team in a position to start running the football more effectively? Is it just a matter of personnel, or is there something the Gamecocks should be doing differently?
It's hard to say; probably both a bit of personnel and a bit of other factors. We've only really had one good running back under Spurrier, that being Cory Boyd. Mike Davis, who started last year, wasn't a bad receiving back, but he probably wasn't destined to be a great starter at a BCS-conference school. I'm still a little surprised that Eric Baker and Brian Maddox didn't get more touches last year. With the new faces in the backfield this year, we hope to see improvement. Both Maddox and Giles were highly recruited, so the talent would seem to be there.
The real issue, though, was likely on the line. Adding Wolford, who was considered a running-game guru at Illinois, is intended to help. Wolford has worked with fundamentals and added some new blocking schemes that seem to have been successful in practices. We've actually recruited fairly well on the line over the last few years, suggesting that the problem may have been line coaching. As with Garcia, though, it's been a long time since we've seen a good line and running game in Columbia, so I'm going to wait until Thursday to make any real judgment calls.
5.) South Carolina has to deal with some attrition on the defensive line, and it sounds like the secondary is talented if inexperienced. What should we expect from the defense this season?
On the one hand, I think the main issue facing this defense will be depth, which shouldn't be a major issue during the first game. On the other hand, another issue facing the defense is youth, especially in the secondary. A couple of badly blown coverages against Russell Wilson, needless to say, could cost us the game, so hopefully our young talent will be mentally prepared.
The other thing that I think will be an issue in this game will be the pass rush. We're missing a couple of defensive linemen, one, Clifton Geathers, an end that is a key figure in the pass rush. Our penetration may suffer if Devin Taylor doesn't ably fill Geathers shoes, which I doubt he will. Still, we have good pass rushers in Eric Norwood and Cliff Matthews, so we should be able to get some pressure.
As this is a young but talented defense, I think it will improve throughout the season as the younger players grow into their roles. That is, of course, unless key guys get hurt, which could really cause the wheels to come off.