Columbia, SC (Willie T. Smith III, The Greenville News) – South Carolina is ranked No. 9 in the preseason Amway Coaches poll.
For the Gamecocks to earn their fourth consecutive Top 10 season, however, several issues must be addressed. Here are five of the most glaring questions the team must answer as fall practice begins tonight:
1. Where does Brison Williams play?
Brison Williams quietly became the leader of the defense a year ago during an outstanding season as the strong safety. He became defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward's coach on the field by making sure a veteran secondary remained on task and helping support a young and inexperienced linebacking corps.
With Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree now competing for jobs in the NFL, the Gamecocks find themselves with limited options at cornerback. The dependence on incoming freshmen to fill in gaps has forced the USC coaching staff to prepare Williams, a senior, to play cornerback.
"Brison is our best corner right now and he's excited about playing the position," Ward says. "He's lost a little weight during the summer and is ready."
How much Williams plays corner depends on the development of talented but inexperienced athletes. Sophomore Rico McWilliams and senior Sidney Rhodes, a former walk-on from Wren High, enter the fall listed as the starters.
Former tailback Jamari Smith, a sophomore, displayed promise during the spring
Three incoming freshmen -- Wesley Green, Chris Lammons and Al Harris, Jr. -- will be counted on to supplement and potentially start in time.
Ward and secondary coach Grady Brown are comfortable putting Williams at corner, however, thanks to the emergence of Kadetrix Marcus and Chris Moody at strong safety.
In a perfect world, Williams would open at strong safety.
2. Can young linebacker corps be strength of the defense?
Ward was convinced beforfe the 2013 season that the Gamecocks would be new and improved at linebacker. The group struggled early, but with the help of linebackers coach Kirk Botkin and graduate assistant Shaq Wilson (who led the team in tackles from the position in 2011 and 2012), the group made impressive strides.
With Skai Moore, Kaiwan Lewis and Sharrod Golightly leading the way, the group forced eight turnovers in the Gamecocks' final two games.
The job this season will be how the group reacts to offenses more seriously game-planning against it, in addition to learning its individual assignments in the new 3-4 defense that will be implemented.
3. Is Dylan Thompson ready to be full-time QB?
Dylan Thompson has had his moments since joining the program, the biggest being his 315-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Gamecocks' 27-17 win against archrival Clemson in.
Steve Spurrier likes to talk of Thompson's 3-0 record as a starter; now Thompson must deliver on a weekly basis.
One big issue for Thompson is completion percentage. He has a .554 career percentage, and that number must improve.
Spurrier has raved about Thompson's leadership qualities during both the spring and summer.
The Gamecocks have the ability to put an explosive offense on the field, but Thompson will have to be the orchestrator.
4. How does USC replace Bruce Ellington?
Time after time, in the most critical situations in 2013, wide receiver Bruce Ellington made the clutch offensive plays for USC.
He led the Gamecocks with 49 catches and eight touchdown receptions.
Now that he is playing for the San Francisco 49ers, it is time for others to take over.
After a three-game suspension in midseason, Shaq Roland came on strong and finished with 23 catches with five touchdowns. He finally displayed the flare that helped him earn South Carolina's Mr. Football Award as a high school senior.
Pharoh Cooper could break out in his second season, and Damiere Byrd hopes to return to form after a late season knee injury.
5. Who steps up on the defensive line?
Although defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's production declined as a junior, there is no replacing one of the most incredible athletes to play college football.
Tackles Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton were solid enough to make NFL camps, and the departure of the three players has left tremendous holes on the defensive line.
J.T. Surratt, the lone returning starter, will have to lead a group of inexperienced players. Junior College transfer Abu Lamin should make an immediate impact, and former reserves Gerald Dixon Jr. and Phillip Dukes must step up.
Sophomore Kelsey Griffin was highly regarded out of high school and will be called on to contribute.
The starting ends are Darius English and Gerald Dixon.
English is a talented pass rusher who has had to bulk up to reach 250 pounds. Whether he can maintain that weight will determine his effectiveness.