Well, the holiday depression is now in full swing – the day after Christmas, almost a full week to New Year’s, boring no-name teams playing in boring strangely named bowl games, cold, wet winter weather – ugh, it almost makes you want to sleep until about 6 p.m. on December 31. Well folks, today I have good news for you – it’s time for the first annual TRC Gamecock Football Superlatives!
Now calm down and don’t read through these too fast. It’s like that present you couldn’t wait to open yesterday, so you tore through it like Travian Robertson through the CTU offensive line, except you didn’t get the satisfaction of a sack dance. (OK, maybe a few of you did do a sack dance because that’s how you roll, but I digress.)
So take your time to savor these people and moments from a very special 2011 Gamecock football season.
Plays of the Year
Defensive Play of the Year – Jadeveon Clowney came to South Carolina more hyped than any player in its history, and showed why late in the fourth quarter of his second career game against Georgia. With the Gamecocks hanging on to a three-point lead with a little over three minutes to go, Clowney came through the UGA offensive line unblocked, grabbed quarterback Aaron Murray by the jersey and slung him to the ground like a rag doll. The sheer force of the sack separated Murray from the ball, and big Melvin Ingram scooped and scored for a 45-35 South Carolina lead. That would be the deciding score in a 45-42 win in Athens, the ‘Cocks second straight over the Bulldogs. Honorable Mention: Antonio Allen’s interception return for TD against UGA; Devin Taylor’s interception return for TD against Arkansas; D.J. Swearinger’s game-saving interception against Mississippi State; pretty much any sack against Tajh Boyd and CTU.
Offensive Play of the Year – The Gamecocks were on the verge of a devastating loss in Starkville against Mississippi State, trailing 10-7 when they took over on offense midway through the fourth quarter. Connor Shaw took the team on a methodical drive down the field and had them in position for at least a tying field goal, facing a third and goal at the four yard line. Alshon Jeffery had only 20 yards receiving up to that point in the game, but with Marcus Lattimore sidelined with what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury, Jeffery was the obvious option, as evidenced by the Bulldogs double coverage on him. Shaw lofted the ball towards the corner, and Jeffery out-jumped two MSU defenders for the winning score. (Scrub video to the 2:10 mark.) Honorable Mention: Stephen Garcia’s first TD run against ECU; Marcus Lattimore’s 52-yard catch and run TD against Vandy; Bruce Ellington’s 61-yard run for TD against Kentucky; Connor Shaw’s 60-yard TD run against The Citadel; Alshon Jeffery’s TD catch against CTU.
Special Teams Play of the Year – Also the overall play of the year, you didn’t really think I was going to leave this one out did you? Not only is this the play of the year, I’d dare say it’s a serious contender for play of the decade in USC football. It is certainly a great play in and of itself, but it also came at a critical time in the Georgia game when the Bulldogs had seized momentum. The play was a message from Steve Spurrier that we were going to do whatever it took to win, and we needed every break we could get that day. It is also the only single play in over thirteen months of TRC blogging that deserved it’s own post. Honorable Mention: Ace Sanders’ 68-yard punt return for TD against ECU; Jay Wooten’s 49-yard field goal against UGA; Ingram’s leap and grab of a UGA onside kick.
Drive of the Year – A 20-play, 98-yard touchdown drive against Tennessee epitomized what kind of team and program South Carolina is becoming. A drive like that against UT in Neyland Stadium would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago, but this team showed serious heart, determination and talent that night. Honorable Mention: The aforementioned 12-play, 79-yard drive against MSU; a critical 9-play, 60-yard drive just before half against CTU after they had tied the score 10-10.
Players of the Year
Team Most Valuable Player – Melvin Ingram. What a ride for this kid. I’m only going by memory, but I believe he came to USC as a linebacker and spent a little time at fullback before settling into the defensive line rotation. It took him some time to learn the nuances of the DL, but once he did, boy did he make a difference. You saw glimpses of it last year, and his freakish athletic ability jumped out at everyone who saw him play this year. He’s had the tag “unblockable” placed on him, he’s intercepted passes, ran fake punts, been a mentor to young guys like Jadeveon Clowney, and I’m sure at some point he’s washed towels and handed out Gatorade. A consensus first-team All-American, Melvin will be a first-round draft pick and will go down as one of the Gamecocks’ greatest ever.
Defensive Player of the Year – Antonio Allen. Led the team with 81 total tackles and tied for the lead with three interceptions. Allen always seems to make a play when the Gamecocks need him most. Unheralded when he got to South Carolina (heck, even unheralded coming into this season) Allen matured into an All-SEC performer and will be an NFL draft pick in the spring.
Offensive Player of the Year – Connor Shaw. With the trio of Garcia, Lattimore and Jeffery on the team, it was impossible to see this coming. But when Garcia was benched and then dismissed, Shaw stepped in and guided the team to six wins in seven games, and only the second 10-win season in school history. He was solid and rarely spectacular, until the last game of the season that is, when he dumped the Shaw kitchen sink on CTU and gave Gamecock fans reason to be very optimistic about the quarterback position for the next two years. Shaw completed 63 percent of his passes and threw for 12 TD’s, and gave the Gamecocks a controlled running threat from the position once he got comfortable. The one thing he did not do that was a pleasant surprise – make backbreaking mistakes.
Special Teams Player of the Year – Vacant. Oh, ok, if I have to pick somebody let’s go with…uh…Jay Wooten. Congratulations Jay.
Freshman of the Year – Jadeveon Clowney. Really an easy pick and I don’t think I have to rehash why. All I know is he is going to be a beast for the next two years at USC. I’d be remiss without acknowledging the contributions of newcomers Brandon Wilds, Mike Matulis, Bruce Ellington, Buster Anderson, Kelcy Quarles and Victor Hampton. The Gamecock football program will be in good hands with these guys over the next few years.
Coaches of the Year Not Named Spurrier
Offensive Coach of the Year – Shawn Elliott. The South Carolina offensive line has been a problem since Steve Spurrier’s arrival in 2005. But this year Shawn Elliott patched together a group that should be talked about for one primary reason – because nobody talked about it. There were times when the OL didn’t play particularly well, it happens, but those moments were much fewer and farther between than recent years. Under Elliott’s tutelage, and with the young talent we have returning on the line, look for the OL to be a strength instead of a weakness going forward.
Defensive Coach of the Year – Ellis Johnson. This guy has gotten it done with many teams over many years, but this might have been his best coaching job. Granted, he had a lot of talent to work with, but he also had a hand in recruiting the talent to fit his system. After a rough first two games, the South Carolina defense rebounded and is now mentioned in the same breath as National Championship contenders Alabama and LSU. Johnson’s defense held two teams under 100 total yards (Vanderbilt, Kentucky) and two more teams under 200 total yards (Tennessee, CTU). He will be a tough man to replace.