Now, after a full spring and almost all of preseason camp, they have elevated their games to a point it wouldn’t surprise offensive coordinator John Grass if the Gamecocks had multiple receivers with 60 catches or more.
“Going into spring we thought they were maybe the weakest position we had on the field,” Grass said. “We definitely had a doubt about them … but I cannot tell you how much better they’ve gotten.
“I think they’ve gotten better and better about releases, route-running, how to play the game, catching the ball. Those guys, probably in practice, run as much as anybody on the field. They’ve developed some toughness — now they’ve got to continue to get tougher and get better.”
For the Gamecocks to run the up-tempo spread offense the new coaches are looking to inject, they have to have receivers.
How quickly that could happen was open for debate since they graduated their top three receivers — Houston Texans rookie Alan Bonner, Kevyn Cooper and Trey Smith.
Together, the three senior receivers accounted for 106 catches, 1,618 yards and 10 touchdowns. Departed running back Washaun Ealey had 21 catches for 206 yards and three scores.
The charge to recover that production would fall on sophomore Telvin Brown, junior Gabe Chambers and sophomore Markis Merrill. Brown and Chambers had a combined 20 catches for 326 yards and two touchdowns last season. Junior Spencer Goffigan is the only other returning receiver who caught a pass, and he had one for 16 yards.
But add to the mix sure-handed Dalton Screws, speedy Josh Barge — a redshirt freshman who impressed in last week’s final scrimmage — and the tight ends and the Gamecocks don’t believe they’ll be hurting when it comes to moving the ball through the air.
“When they first came in here and we graduated the big-time receivers last year, that was the spot everybody thought we were going to be weak at,” Chambers said. “To be honest with you, the ones we’ve got can get the job done. Just put the balls in our hands.
“I know we can make plays. Put the ball in our hands and we can be in the end zone.”
When it comes to the up-tempo spread, the first name that comes to mind — at least in the Ohio Valley Conference — is Eastern Illinois. The Panthers ran it fast and ran it well last year.
They had an inside receiver, Erik Lora, who caught an FCS record 136 passes last year – 10 more than JSU’s top five receivers combined – including 21 in one game. His 1,664 receiving yards were fifth most for a season single in FCS history.
The Gamecocks have gone more than two years without having 21 completions in a game. They caught 171 balls last year. Bonner’s 50 were the most by a JSU receiver since Joey Hamilton had 58 in 1999. Another Bonner — Ronald, no relation — caught 62 in 1997.
When JSU head coach Bill Clark first saw Lora’s numbers he did a double take. Grass wouldn’t turn down a 100-catch guy, but he doesn’t expect the Gamecocks to be built that way. After Lora's 136, the Panthers' next three leading receivers had 53, 49 and 37. That's more like it.
“I tell the guys all the time there’s one ball and you spread that ball around you’re a lot harder to defend,” Grass said. “I feel we’ve got a receiving corps with multiple guys who could have 60 and 70 catches and that’s more of the lines we’re looking for.
“Some of the guys we have, if the receiving corps had not improved as much as it has, are capable of having 90 or 100 catches if you threw it to them all the time, but that’s kind of not our philosophy. We like to spread the ball around. You never know: A guy might have 12, 15 one week and not but two or three the next. It just depends on how the game goes and how they’re playing us.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.