This week marks the halfway point of the 2009 college football season for South Carolina. Six regular season games have been played, six remain, starting with this Saturday night's tussle in Tuscaloosa against No. 2 Alabama. Here's how USC stands at each position on the eve of the start of the stretch run:
QUARTERBACK: Steve Spurrier has said it twice in the last week or so. Stephen Garcia has shown 'tremendous' improvement over last year when he was inclined to take off at the first sign of trouble. Now he's standing longer in the pocket waiting for his receivers to breaking and showing greater accuracy when he throws the ball.
His completion percentage is eight percentage points higher than last year when his late season struggles dropped his completion rate to a mediocre 53 percent by the time he packed up his locker. This year, the redshirt sophomore is connecting on 61.2 percent of his passes (109-of-178) for 1,268 yards with a 3-to-1 ratio (9 TD, 3 INT), significantly better than last season when he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes.
Heeding the coaching staff's advice about ball security has greatly improved USC's turnover margin from last year when the Gamecocks were an SEC-worst minus-11. Now they're plus-two after six games and in the top half the conference.
Garcia heads into Week 7 of the regular season as the fourth-ranked QB in the SEC in terms of passing yardage (211.3 ypg). He's thrown for about six yards more per game than his counterpart this weekend, Alabama's Greg McElroy (205.5 ypg). Garcia is third in SEC in total offense (222.2 ypg).
"He's trying. He still has some miscues, but not nearly as bad as last year," Spurrier said. "He's making some progress."
Of course, Garcia and the USC offense face their toughest test of the season this season when they square off with the impressive Alabama defense. Without question, Garcia must play his best game of the season and direct a balanced USC offensive attack to give the Gamecocks a reasonable chance to win the game.
RUNNING BACK: The rise of redshirt freshman Kenny Miles over the last three weeks is comparable to the final quarter-mile of the 2009 Kentucky Derby when Mine That Bird came out of nowhere and exploded down the stretch to pull off a monumental upset.
Six weeks ago, Miles was sitting quietly on the bench hoping for an opportunity to play. He had zero carries against NC State and Georgia. Boy, things have changed. Over the last three games, Miles has carried 40 times for 212 yards - an average of 5.3 yards per rush - compared to 16 attempts for Jarvis Giles and 14 for Brian Maddox. A seismic shift? Yes.
There was no greater testament to the coaching staff's confidence in Miles when they handed him the ball nine times in the fourth quarter of last Saturday's 28-26 victory over Kentucky, including six times on the final clock-killing possession. Who got the ball on third-and-six with a chance to put the game away in the final two minutes? Miles.
The rapid ascent of Miles doesn't mean Giles and Maddox have been mothballed. Things could turn around quickly for either of them. Giles has been fairly productive when he's gotten the ball with a 5.8 yard per carry average (42 rushes for 265 yards). However, he's shown a tendency to slip when he tries to make his cuts.
"He (Miles) seems to make some yards. That's usually the reason one gets more carries than the other guys," Spurrier said. "He's running forward and not going backwards, making a guy miss every now and then. Brian Maddox did some good things the other day (the UK game), caught a nice pass down the sideline and made some good blocks. Jarvis Giles, we have to get him in every now and then."
WIDE RECEIVER: Will the second half of the season become the Alshon Jeffery show? Well, this week could provide a clue since the true freshman from Calhoun County is no longer an unknown commodity to opponents. But there's no questioning Jeffery's considerable physical ability.
Following his seven reception, three touchdown performance against Kentucky, Spurrier summed it up best: Southern Cal head coach Pete Carroll knew what he was doing when he traveled 3,000 miles in pursuit of Jeffery.
"Those Southern Cal boys don't come to South Carolina for an average receiver," Spurrier said. "They knew the kid could play. It took us about six games to figure out he could really play."
Jeffery's breakout game against the Wildcats deepens a wide receiver corps led by senior speedster Moe Brown (team-leading 21 receptions for 316 yards) and Tori Gurley (18 catches). However, three of the top six pass catchers aren't even wide receivers. Coaches hope Jason Barnes (nine catches), Dion LeCorn and D.L. Moore will become more productive in the passing game. They'll need to if USC is going to have success against teams like Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson, all of which feature solid secondaries.
TIGHT END: This position has belonged to Weslye Saunders all season even though he missed the Kentucky game because of a sprained ankle injury. Nothing has changed since his replacement, freshman Justice Cunningham, understandably struggled in his first extensive action of the season.
Saunders is now healthy and could play a prominent role in the USC offense against Alabama. But the Ole Miss game was the last time we saw Saunders catch a pass, and he only had one catch against the Rebels. Twelve of his 14 receptions came in the first two games, so his role in the offense has clearly diminished over the last month. Can Saunders regain his mojo?
OFFENSIVE LINE: Progress is sometimes measured in baby steps and that's likely the case with the USC offensive line. Are they playing better than last season when the running game went nowhere and they were next-to-last in sacks allowed? Yes. But Eric Wolford will continue to have his hands full in his first season as offensive line coach.
"We've gotten to where we've struggled sometimes against a lot of teams up front," Spurrier said this week. "But then we do some good things also. When one guy struggles on the offensive line, then they all can look pretty bad. Our guys are doing better. I think they can play better."
Redshirt T.J. Johnson has solidified the right guard spot and Lemuel Jeanpierre and Garrett Anderson have been solid at center (though Jeanpierre played most of the snaps against Kentucky). But the other positions have been up and down all season.
Jarriel King is still learning how to play left tackle, though he possesses all the physical tools the position demands. Kyle Nunn has seen his role increase over the last three weeks but still trails King in the number of snaps.
Left guard was the trouble spot against Kentucky, and inconsistent performances have plagued the position all year. We could see the fourth different starter in seven games at the spot when USC lines up with Alabama in Tuscaloosa this weekend. Heath Batchelor has started three of the last four games there since taking over for the injured Terrence Campbell. But King and Nunn remain possibilities, as well.
Hutch Eckerson has played all but six snaps at right tackle in the last two game after taking over for the injured Quintin Richardson, who returned to the field last week in a limited role. The second half of the season could feature an intriguing battle between those two.