Freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was one of several designated stars of Saturday's scrimmage at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Even though it was his first official scrimmage as a Gamecock, Clowney has proven through 11 practices that he has the physical skills to become a superstar at the major college level. Well, at least in practice, anyways.
Clowney is still adjusting to the speed of the college game compared to high school, when he overwhelmed opponents and was the nation's No. 1 prospect.
"Not yet, but I'm getting there, though," Clowney said. "When I came in, it was kind of tough of first. I was like, 'This isn't anything like high school.' But I started getting better at using my hands. You have to read guys more on this level than you do in high school."
Clowney has also learned something else - he just has to play his role within the scheme being run because the other defensive linemen are capable of doing their jobs as well. Assistant Head Coach for Defense Ellis Johnson sees progress from Clowney every day, but maintains he has a ways to go to overtake Melvin Ingram for the starting defensive end job. Like many freshmen, discipline is something that must be learned.
"He's doing super, one-on-one," Johnson said. "They very seldom block him one-on-one but he had two offsides today. We're trying to work a lot of our stuff with our zone pressures and things and he's still learning those. But he has to have time. Everyone wants him to come in and start the second day, but he's got to have time to learn some schemes and get lined up.
"He's making a lot of mental mistakes, but so are all the freshmen. He had two sacks today - or two touches. Nobody blocks him one-on-one, but the game is more than one-on-one. I know he was a very aggressive player in high school, so I know he tries to be physical. He's made some good tackles on backs up in the box."
Some of USC's offensive skill position players have experienced Clowney's impact on the USC defense in practice. It was the same deal on Saturday.
"He's an animal," Bruce Ellington said. "He's a beast. He's a great player. He is so quick off the ball. When he uses technique, he can get in the backfield anytime he wants."
"It's a good thing he's a Gamecock," quarterback Connor Shaw exclaimed. "He's a dominating player during practice and I'm sure he will be in the game. But it's a much different atmosphere during a game."
BYRD FLIES AGAIN: Damiere Byrd showed off his blazing speed again on Saturday when he caught a 65-yard touchdown pass from Shaw. But seeing the freshman race past the Gamecocks' defensive backs seemingly with ease is nothing new for the USC players. Last month, Byrd and Marty Markett engaged in a match race to determine who was the unofficial fastest Gamecock player on the 2011 roster. Byrd won.
"It's an OK rep, then again whether you're the fastest player on the team or not, you still have to make plays," Byrd said. "I figured I would get (the reputation as the fastest player), but if he was faster than me, he was faster. Even before we had the race, everybody told me Marty is faster than you, blah, blah, blah. But after we had the race, everybody has been respecting me now. It's kind of a cool thing."
Byrd said one of his toughest adjustments to the college game is learning how to catch passes over the middle and "taking a lick." He occasionally did the same thing in high school, but it's far different at the SEC level.
"In high school, we didn't have safeties who came down on you that way," Byrd said. "That's the main difference right now. I knew it was going to be hard, and it's still hard now, but I've been able to make plays. I'm satisfied with that. In high school, I didn't have to run so hard every second of the play, but now I do. I'm not too concerned about the speed of the game. I just want to learn about the game and get used to the physicality."
ELLINGTON FLASHBACKS: The last time Bruce Ellington played full-contact football on the Williams-Brice Stadium turf was in December of 2009, when he rushed for 191 yards on 23 carries as a quarterback for Berkeley High School in the Class AAAA Division II state championship game. Saturday, he recalled that game after running the "Wildcat" offense, catching three passes for 37 yards and returning kickoffs in the scrimmage.
"It felt great. I had a couple of flashbacks when I started running the Wildcat," Ellington smiled. "The transition was pretty much just getting hit again. Everything else came naturally. I just had to get used to getting hit and my body to the contact. Right now, I feel very comfortable back there. The game, though, is a lot faster in college. I can't make as many moves as I want to. If you make a cutback, there is a guy right there. I just have to make one move and go."
Ellington politely declined to predict how much Wildcat offense the Gamecocks plan to run this year - he referred that question to Steve Spurrier - but he did say USC works on the package every day in practice.
As far as the kick-return game is concerned, Ellington will focus on kickoffs and let Stephon Gilmore and Ace Sanders handle punt returns.
"I'll return them, but we have Ace and Stephon back there and they're both doing a great job at doing what they're doing," Ellington said. "If they ever need a backup, I'll return punts."
SHAW FEELS GOOD: Shaw enjoyed a productive day in Saturday's scrimmage by completing 9-of-11 passes (81.8 percent) for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Even Spurrier, known to be highly critical of his quarterbacks, praised the sophomore in his post-scrimmage comments to the media. The Flowery Branch, Ga., native knows everything could change tomorrow.
"It always feel good to come out and scrimmage a little bit and get into the routine," Shaw said. "He can brag on me now but tomorrow he can crucify me. We'll just take it day-by-day. It's always good to hear a good word. But I'll leave that at that."
One statistic emerged from Saturday's scrimmage that can certainly be interpreted two ways - zero turnovers by the USC offense. Obviously, the offensive coaches are happy with that number, but the defensive coaches are bemoaning the lack of plays by their unit even though the defense was not allowed to put a hard lick on the quarterbacks.
"Coach (G.A.) Mangus told us we did a pretty good job of taking care of the ball today," Shaw said. "I think that's pretty imperative when you get out here. But I think all of us want to get out here and (get hit). I think the quick whistles definitely take away something. But when we put in a quarterback run game, that will help. Right now, it's a good thing because it has helped me improve my pocket presence and get more comfortable in there."
Shaw concluded his first series at the controls with a 65-yard TD pass to Byrd, who has consistently used his speed to out-run defensive backs.
"He's quick, now. He can move," Shaw said. "It looks like he is just gliding, but he is covering some ground. He's definitely a football player. He can run, but he can also catch too when he's flying."
Is Shaw feeling any pressure as he battles Stephen Garcia for the starting quarterback job? No, he says.
"I don't look at it as pressure. We know how to handle it," Shaw said. "I'm just competing to the best of my ability and that's what I'm called to do. Today, I think all of my work this summer paid off. I thought I made some giant leaps in the summer."
CHANGE-UP AT SAFETY: The broken lower arm injury suffered by Brison Williams earlier this week in practice has forced USC's defensive coaches to move people around at the safety spots, diluting the already thin depth even more. Before the injury, Williams had been challenging Jimmy Legree for the starting job at free safety, but now the backup is redshirt freshman Sharrod Golightly, who is cross-training at both safety positions.
When asked about the possible effect the absence of Williams will have on the secondary as the Gamecocks continue to prepare for the season, Johnson just shakes his head.
"I don't think we have an answer yet," Johnson said. "It's a big hole. We'll have to look at the film today and see if anyone maybe answered the bell and would be a possibility. He was really pushing Jimmy and both of them were making each other better. In fact, Brison was making some plays Jimmy can't make quite as consistently. That was a huge blow. It's football, though, and it probably won't be the last injury. We have a major problem back there with depth and numbers."
-- Freshman Kadetrix Marcus saw his first action at spur in Saturday's scrimmage and "lined up wrong about three times today and gave up some plays," Johnson said. Marcus moved to spur two days ago but could shift back to safety in the wake of the season-ending arm injury to Williams.
-- Johnson on Texas A&M possibly joining the SEC and future conference realignment: "I think it's something that's coming down the line. Whether it's three months or three years, there's going to be another mega-shift. Whether they come in this conference or don't come in this conference, I don't think it makes our life any easier."
-- Shon Carson, the leading rusher in Saturday's scrimmage, said he read the holes very well but is still trying to adjust to the speed of the game. He added he has learned a lot about the offense from watching Marcus Lattimore in practice and spending time with him watching film. He believes he is in "great shape to play this year."
-- Shaw on freshman WR K.J. Brent: "He's a quick learner, he runs pretty good routes and he's got good hands. He had his breakout practice a couple of days ago. It will be interesting to see how he comes along during camp."
-- After participating Sunday in Fan Appreciation Day at Colonial Life Arena, USC will practice at The Proving Grounds starting at 7:30 p.m. The workout is closed to the public. It will be the first of four consecutive 7:30 p.m. workouts leading up to the first day of classes on Thursday.