Injuries create questions on offensive depth chart
It is hard to complain about the South Carolina offense when it put up 52 points and more than 500 yards last week at Arkansas.
However, coach Steve Spurrier is hoping there won’t be a letdown against Tennessee.
A few nagging injuries on offense have caused some concern. Junior wide receiver Bruce Ellington strained his foot against the Razorbacks, when he caught six passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Ellington has been in a walking boot and is questionable against Tennessee. Senior Ronald Patrick has also been in a walking boot with a high ankle sprain, and Spurrier said the right guard is doubtful for Saturday’s game.
Taking Patrick’s place could be redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop, but Waldrop himself has been dealing with a sprained foot and has missed several games. Waldrop began the season as the starting center, but with his injury, redshirt freshman Clayton Stadnik has come in and played well.
If Waldrop does not return, there is a chance fans could see redshirt freshman Brock Stadnik start at right guard alongside his brother. Spurrier said true freshman Na’Ty Rodgers could be an option to replace Patrick as well if the senior cannot go.
“[The offensive line is] going to be tested this week,” Spurrier said. “Tennessee has some of the biggest defensive lineman, I think, in the nation. It’s hard to move those guys very far.”
Spurrier may have specifically been focusing on the Volunteers’ 6-foot-8, 351-pound senior defensive tackle, Daniel McCullers. McCullers will make it difficult for USC to succeed with the inside running game.
Tennessee also has several talented pass rushers, including seniors Jacques Smith and Corey Miller.
Spurrier’s plan to contain the defensive line is to operate out of the shotgun to give senior quarterback Connor Shaw more time to throw. Spurrier also hopes to run out of the shotgun formation to help give sophomore running back Mike Davis a clearer look at which lanes to run through.
Spurrier said that the South Carolina receivers should expect tighter coverage than they have received in prior games.
“They play a little more man-to-man coverage, and their DB’s are a little better than anyone we’ve played thus far,” Spurrier said. “Their defensive backs can really cover. It’ll be a challenge for our receivers to get open and to see if Connor can hit them.”
The playmaker on the Volunteers’ secondary is redshirt sophomore safety Brian Randolph, who has three interceptions.
His teammates in the secondary, sophomore safety LaDarrell McNeil, junior cornerback Justin Coleman and freshman cornerback Cameron Sutton, have each recorded at least one interception.
The Tennessee secondary will be a challenge for Shaw, who is one of two starting quarterbacks in the nation to throw for at least 10 touchdowns without any interceptions.
With Ellington’s status in question, the timing of sophomore receiver Shaq Roland’s return from suspension is fortunate for the Gamecocks. He and junior Damiere Byrd will be instrumental for the Gamecocks in setting up the passing attack, but it could be a rough day if the two players cannot get open in their one-on-one matchups.
Spurrier and Shaw both said the quarterback’s improvement owes to playing more games and gaining confidence.
One thing that has elevated Shaw’s game this season is his ability to throw the deep ball. Roland caught a touchdown off a deep ball in the first game against North Carolina, and Byrd has caught long touchdowns the past two weeks.
Shaw said there are several reasons for his increased success on deep passes.
“I think we have more protection up front,” Shaw said. “I think I’ve had more time; I’m hanging in the pocket more, trusting my reads. We have guys that can stretch the field vertically, so all of that plays into it.”
With the presence that Tennessee’s defensive tackles have inside, the passing game will likely be crucial to a Gamecock victory.
The vertical attack has not disappointed so far this season and has improved noticeably from last year.
“I think it has been better than the past, and it goes back to all the hard work we put over the summer to get the connections down,” Shaw said. “Also, we got our five guys up front who are giving me great protection, so that’s a big advantage for us.”