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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Five fall thoughts: South Carolina

Kendall Rogers        
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Everything seemed normal at South Carolina when the 2012 college baseball season came to a close and the Gamecocks returned from Omaha.

Then, unexpectedly, things dramatically changed. South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman moved to Texas A&M, immediately sparking cries for the Gamecocks to hire baseball coach Ray Tanner for the position. South Carolina offered it, and Tanner, who certainly has proven enough in college baseball, accepted.

Wasting little time after Tanner made his decision, the Gamecocks promoted associate head coach Chad Holbrook to the head coaching position, a role he could've had at many programs throughout the past few years.

Things have changed beyond Tanner's move and Holbrook's promotion. The Gamecocks no longer have legendary pitchers Michael Roth and Matt Price, and clutch first baseman Christian Walker also is long gone.

With all that said, expectations haven't changed for the Gamecocks as they usher in another fall at Carolina Stadium with plenty of new faces in tow.

1. Replacing starting pitcher Michael Roth and reliever Matt Price won't be easy -- Look at what the Gamecocks have accomplished the past few seasons, and in almost every clutch instance, the names Roth and Price came up. Whether it was Roth stepping up in the regular season, or guiding the Gamecocks through the College World Series, or Price slamming the door on an SEC team or someone in Omaha, those two were the epitome of what the Gamecocks were all about. In addition to their production on the field, Roth/Price also were big pieces to the Gamecocks from a leadership standpoint. Replacing the two won't be easy, but the Gamecocks have some options. For instance, the starting rotation should be fine with sophomore lefthander Jordan Montgomery earning valuable experience in Omaha this past June, while righthander Colby Holmes looks to return to form, as he's off to a fantastic start this fall. In essence, the Gamecocks have one hole to fill in the rotation, and they've got some options with Forrest Koumas back, while lefty Tyler Webb could be the next Roth with a unique motion and a fastball that's running up to 91 so far this fall. As for Price, the Gamecocks aren't real sure how he'll be replaced just yet, but Evan Beal has an electric arm and could be a very viable replacement for the righthanded stalwart.

2. Pitching depth won't be an issue for these Gamecocks  -- As South Carolina fought its way to yet another CWS berth, it had very few issues on the mound last season outside of some shakiness in the No. 3 rotation spot for some time, and simply replacing submariner John Taylor. Well, the Gamecocks won't have any depth issues in the 2013 campaign, at least if you ask new head coach Chad Holbrook. In addition to welcoming back Evan Beal, the Gamecocks also return talented sophomore Joel Seddon, and have very high hopes for talented freshmen Jack Wynkoop and Curt Britt, both throwing in the 90s so far this fall. The Gamecocks still need to solidify its final spot in the rotation, but overall, this staff looks primed to have a very solid 2013 campaign.

3. Gamecocks won't skip a beat with Holbrook -- It was common knowledge amongst Gamecocks insiders that former head coach Ray Tanner someday wanted to be an athletic director, preferably at South Carolina. So, when long-time athletic director Eric Hyman made the move across the SEC from South Carolina to Texas A&M, all baseball writers around the country immediately went on alert. It didn't take long for the Gamecocks to anoint Tanner the new athletic director, thus the promotion of heralded associate head coach Chad Holbrook. Though losing your field general can sometimes be a daunting task -- just look at Arkansas football without Bobby Petrino -- Holbrook is more than up to the task and very experienced at this level. In addition to studying under Tanner and etching his place into the list of the nation's best assistants the past few seasons, he also learned valuable lessons under very successful North Carolina head coach Mike Fox. From a pedigree standpoint, it doesn't get much better than Holbrook. Holbrook already is known as an excellent recruiter. He'll soon be known as a great head coach, too.

4. Offense a question mark for Gamecocks -- When the dust settles and the 2013 campaign begins, there's a good chance the Gamecocks will be more than serviceable from an offensive standpoint. But for now, this unit is one with some holes. The Gamecocks finished last season with a .265 batting average, and loses their only hitter -- first baseman Christian Walker -- that finished last season with a batting average over .321. Additionally, the Gamecocks must replace athletic outfielder Evan Marzilli and veteran Adam Matthews, who always was good for some key hits. Speedy outfielder Tanner English is expected to have a much improved campaign, while the same can be said for shortstop Joey Pankake, third baseman LB Dantzler and catcher Grayson Greiner. I'd also look for Erik Payne, who finished last season with a .265 average, to play a much more important role. In terms of freshmen, infielders Max Schrock and George Iskenderian are making a strong push to be immediate contributors.

5. Gamecocks should be very good up the middle -- The middle infield was a huge question mark entering last season, but things were stable by the end of the '12 campaign. Freshman shortstop Joey Pankake had his ups and downs early in the season, but played his best brand of baseball late in the year, particularly in Omaha, from a defensive standpoint. Second baseman Chase Vergason also played well down the stretch last season and increased his worth in the eyes of Holbrook and the South Carolina coaching staff. Though Max Schrock is in the mix at second base with Vergason, that position should be a strong suit either way. There's also the center field position, which was occupied by Marzilli last season. Marzilli was outstanding defensively last season, so living up to his standards will be difficult. However, the Gamecocks have an excellent option in sophomore outfielder Tanner English, who's a great athlete and moves to the position this fall. The middle of the field isn't even a slight concern for me when it comes to the Gamecocks.

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