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January 16, 2012

Cloninger: Offense should change to suit talents



"It's been a long, a long time coming,
But I know a change gonna come."
------------------------------ SAM COOKE

Perhaps that's a bit misleading. Perhaps there's a better lyric to promote what I'm trying to say, in that a change could or should come instead of definitely coming.

To suggest changing an offensive system that helped produce an 11-2 record would be arrogant of me, but since I am rather arrogant, why not? My daddy always taught me to talk loudly and carry a bigger stick than the other guy, so here I go.

South Carolina football is at its peak. But it can keep adding to the mountain it's perched upon and make the next peak more glorious than its present one, and it can happen as soon as next year.

All that needs to be done is for Steve Spurrier to realize that his offensive centerpiece this year - running the football - is going to be much improved in 2012. He also should realize that his passion - passing the football - stands to be substantially weaker after a struggling season in 2011. Yes, the offense was good in spots this year and tremendously improved as the year ended, but it is losing its most dynamic receiving threat and there is a rather sizable gap between Alshon Jeffery and the next guy on the list (this space available).

So, especially now that four-star tailback Mike Davis ended the suspense early and announced his commitment to the Gamecocks, it's the time for Spurrier to look ahead and begin installing the next phase in USC football - not just run-oriented, but run-dominated.

Spurrier almost regretfully said all year that the Gamecocks were a running team, which signaled a tone in itself. He knew that Marcus Lattimore was too good to be ignored in favor of airing out the ball, and even when Lattimore was lost for the season, he realized that the running game, anchored by the legs of quarterback Connor Shaw, could still be effective. The best coaches adjust to what they have instead of trying to shoehorn their players into what they don't have, and Spurrier did that.

Now he needs to keep it going. Take all of the elements clearly in front of him and make the Gamecocks into a team that runs, runs and runs some more.

Offensive line coach/running game coordinator Shawn Elliott is a master of the zone-read. Lattimore is returning for his junior year, perhaps a step slower after reconstructive knee surgery but someone who will give every bit of effort he can to be better than he was. Shaw returns after steadily improving from a game manager who can't be trusted to pass, to knowing exactly when to run and where to run to.

Kenny Miles may or may not come back after two terrific games to finish the season. Brandon Wilds is back after three 100-yard games in the final half of the season. Shon Carson, figured to be a part of the offense all preseason, returns with four full years of eligibility. Davis and three-star recruit Kendric Salley will be on campus. The Gamecocks' offensive line, while missing some key pieces, welcomes some big-time recruits and can plug in some players who sparingly played or redshirted this year.

Shaw can throw, and that's great. The Gamecocks will have a stable of returning wide receivers, nobody that has separated himself as a go-to guy but all capable of catching a short pass and turning upfield for a gain. The pass-catching talents of tight ends Justice Cunningham and Buster Anderson shouldn't be discounted, either.

USC has more speed than ability to get loose downfield among the receiving corps, which can also figure into the run-based scheme. Let Damiere Byrd, Nick Jones or Ace Sanders huddle behind Shaw on the snap, or run the reverse.

It's all staring the Head Ball Coach in the face, a red light as subtle in its flashing as it is constant. The offense, helped in a large amount by defense, was good enough to contribute to 11 wins this year. But with the talent on hand, and with the evidence of run-dominated offenses being so agonizingly tricky to stop all over the country, now is the time for change.

Take a few days and head to Atlanta to talk to triple-option guru Paul Johnson. Use what Elliott installed at Appalachian State, built around the magnificence of Armanti Edwards, as the base of the offense. Realize that as painful as it may be, the long pass doesn't have to be part of the gameplan.

The system used this year was Lattimore first, passing second, and it was tweaked to become hand off or let-Shaw-create as an either-or scenario. That can work, but there are only so many places for all of the speed and running ability to fit on the field at one time. That leads to noses out of joint, transfers and the worst phrase in the game - "what if."

This way, everyone gets a chance, several times per game. The offense may be predictable, but only in the word "run." There are too many directions, talents among the runners and ways to go to think that stacking eight in the box will automatically shut it down. And the pass can always be there in that case, an easy throw for a tall receiver or a slot man to slip behind the linebacker and flash his hands up.

Running saves the defense from having to be spectacular, which at least in the first few games of next year, may be a problem. Losing playmakers like Melvin Ingram, Antonio Allen and Stephon Gilmore will hurt, but if the defense can get a few comfortable games under its belt, it can cover the absence as the replacements get their feet wet.

The program is at an all-time high, and can get higher.

All the pilot has to do is realize what got the plane to its present position, and keep the nose turned up.

If you have any questions about this feature or wish to discuss it, visit The Insiders Forum: https://southcarolina.rivals.com/forum.asp?fid=1824

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