Shaq Roland – WR, South Carolina.
Simply put, he’s the most talented incoming player at a position where his team has a severe need for a playmaker. And there’s precedent.
First, the talent/playing time part. Roland tallies 6’1” and approximately 185 pounds, with his two best attributes being speed and hands. A player that tall with those two skills? We’re half-way to a very appealing scenario for South Carolina fans. But there also needs to be an opportunity to play and this year in Columbia that is clearly the case.
If an incoming freshman with that same size and skill set arrived at USC this year (the other USC, the one everybody else besides South Carolina fans calls USC) then the kid would be hard pressed to get on the field in practice, much less the game. Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are among the top 10 wide receivers in the nation, and sophomore George Farmer is bigger and faster than either of them. At South Carolina, however, there are a lot of snaps to go around.
Alshon Jeffrey walked out of Columbia as a 6-3 230-pound receiver who hauled in 179 catches in three seasons for 22 touchdowns and just shy of 3,000 yards. Despite a steep drop in 2011 to 45 receptions (from 88 the previous season), Jeffrey’s impact on the program was substantial and now his position is open.
There are quality options at wide out for the Gamecocks, but most are in the B, maybe B+ category. We should start with the littlest Gamecock of all, Ace Sanders. The 5-8, 175-pounder is extremely athletic and his lack of size hasn’t hindered him yet. In his first two seasons Sanders has totaled 51 catches for 654 yards and four touchdowns.
When SC wants to go big on the outside, DeAngelo Smith and, more likely, D.L. Moore are possibilities. Moore has more of a track record, but just like Jeffrey, saw his production halved from the previous season as the team transitioned from Stephen Garcia to Connor Shaw.
Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd have each contributed running the ball, in addition to playing receiver, and should have increased roles in 2012. As you can see, there is a decent collection here. But other than Sanders, there are no truly proven commodities.
Also in Roland’s favor is that replacing a go-to receiver is something head coach Steve Spurrier has done with relative ease since arriving in Columbia. Troy Williamson, Sidney Rice and the late Kenny McKinley were all big-time talents with big-time production that Spurrier had to transition the team from and he has been successful each time.
One word of caution: don’t be panicked if we get to the middle of October and Roland hasn’t asserted himself yet. In Spurrier’s offense the one thing receivers have to do is run routes properly. Most incoming freshmen who are good enough to get a scholarship to an SEC school were also good enough to simply outrun, out-jump or out-athlete the opposition in high school. In college it’s different. Occasionally we’ve seen a player like Ike Hilliard show up and, from Day One, completely get what Spurrier is after and begin producing immediately.
Most often, however, the transition is more like what the aforementioned Jeffrey experienced. Halfway through his freshman season he had five catches for 61 yards. Total. Then suddenly in week six against Kentucky he goes bat crap crazy and totals seven catches for 138 yards and three scores. It took half his freshman season, but then Alshon got it. He understood the offense and what Spurrier wanted and, most importantly, had improved his route running to the point where the coach cut him loose. I see a similar experience for Roland this season and that’s why he’ll be the 2012 SEC Freshman of the Year.
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