During Monday night's South Carolina practice, starting corner Akeem Auguste reaggravated a left foot injury. Per CBSSports.com RapidReporter Josh Kendall, Auguste will now come off the bench in the Gamecocks' Saturday season opener against East Carolina--if he plays at all.
Starting in Auguste's place will be senior and part-time 2010 starter C.C. Whitlock, with the Gamecock's top backups in the event of Auguste's absence projected to be senior (and former walk-on) Marty Markett and redshirt freshman Cadarious Sanders. A former track athlete, Markett has one start in his two seasons on the Gamecock football team, while Sanders was one of the lower-profile additions to Carolina's 2010 class.
If the 'Cocks were opening their season against any random FCS or Sun Belt tomato can, nothing that was going on in the Gamecock secondary would matter. Even if they were opening against most Conference USA teams, or some lower-rung BCS squad, it wouldn't matter. But against the Pirates? It could matter.
It's not likely to, of course; South Carolina is a legitimate top-20 team and ECU -- 6-7 a year ago with a defense ranked dead last in FBS total defense -- is most certainly not.
But thanks to that ailing Carolina secondary, the Pirates could present the Gamecocks with a stiff challenge all the same. ECU's (newly slimmed-down) head coach is Ruffin McNeill, a former defensive coordinator under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and McNeill's offensive coordinator is Lincoln Riley, a former Tech wide receivers coach and devoted Leach protege. So it wasn't a surprise when their 2010 Pirate offense was as close to Leach's old Air Raid as it was possible to get, throwing more often than any other team in the country, turning quarterback Dominique Davis into the country's fourth-leading passer, and receivers Dwayne Harris and Lance Lewis into a matched pair of 1,100-yard receivers.
Now Riley, Davis, Lewis, and two other players with 40-plus receptions* are all back for another go-round--meaning that they might present matchup problems for South Carolina even if Auguste wasn't injured. The Gamecock secondary was quietly the team's Achilles heel last season, ranking 97th in pass defense and a scarcely-better 87th in opponent's quarterback rating. And even those numbers might have been generous to the Carolina secondary, which had the good fortune of playing alongside the nation's fifth-most potent pass rush. In short: whenever opposing quarterbacks had time to throw against the 2010 'Cocks, they found plenty of success.
And ECU's system -- as with Leach's before it -- is structured in such a way that their quarterback always has time. Despite their nation-leading number of attempts, the Pirates still finished in the FBS top-20 in sacks allowed, giving one up just once every 50 dropbacks. Gamecock defensive line coach Brad Lawing took notice:
"You can’t sack them,” Lawing said. “He just catches it and throws it, catches it and throws it. You can’t get there. It’s just not going to happen. You could have Lawrence Taylor up there five times and you can’t get there.”So ... if the Gamecock pass rush won't matter ... and the Gamecock secondary can't keep up ... what happens?
What happens is that South Carolina wins going away 9 times out of 10, maybe 95 times out of 100. The Pirates have no answer for the likes of Marcus Lattimore or Alshon Jeffery, no way to handle the size Carolina offers up front, no way to avoid wearing down in the face of the Gamecocks' superior depth. We're not suggesting an upset is imminent, not when the Gamecocks have the firepower to match every score the Pirates put on the board and then some. Even the secondary concerns may be overblown--while we don't feel Stephen Gilmore has been an All-SEC caliber player (for the reasons listed above), having him, Whitlock, and fellow returning starter D.J. Swearinger back must lead to some improvement.
That said--if Stephen Garcia has one of his occasional space-case performances? If Connor Shaw isn't ready for his close-up? And Davis and the Pirate wideouts begin abusing Auguste's replacements? And the game remains close into the third or even fourth quarters, and the favored Gamecocks can't find their mojo in Charlotte's neutral-site venue? This being the 1 time out of 10 isn't impossible.
*Though one of those players won't see the field Saturday.