BEHIND ENEMY LINES
DawgNation.com is fanning out across the SEC to get a look at Georgia’s early-season conference opponents. This is the third installment in the series, which will be running all week.
COLUMBIA, S.C. – The large mural of Steve Spurrier stretches nearly the width of Williams-Brice Stadium, and proclaims him as the winningest coach in Gamecock history. It was put up this year. A short distance away a statue of George Rogers, the only Heisman Trophy winner in school history, will be put up early next month.
These herald South Carolina’s history, and sort of it’s present, since Spurrier is still the coach. These days, however, the present and future of the Gamecock football program are intertwined, both with a high level of uncertainty.
It’s not just about how much longer the 70-year-old Spurrier will coach. It’s whether it’s run from 2010-13 (an SEC East crown and then three straight 11-win seasons) will prove to be the high point for a program that’s not seen many great periods. Last year’s team fell to 7-6, and this year’s team isn’t being picked to do much better.
“Just trying to get out guys to play as good as they can play. That’s the only thing I know how to do,” Spurrier said after Wednesday’s practice. “But hopefully we’re not as overconfident as maybe we were last year. We’re not overconfident, I can say that for sure. So hopefully we’ll be anxious to show the country that we’re a pretty good team. Hopefully. We’ll have to find out.”
Indeed, the swagger around the program, personified only recently by the likes of Jadeveon Clowney, has now been replaced by the pre-2010 mindset. Which might not be a bad thing.
“We’ve got something to prove this year,” senior tight end Jerell Adams said. “We’re the underdog, so everybody’s expecting us to do bad. But we’ve got to prove the world wrong.”
When it comes to the SEC East race South Carolina – which has the best winning percentage in the division this decade – is a forgotten team. Georgia is the heavy favorite. Tennessee is the upstart. Missouri is the two-time champion that people are learning not to discount.
But the Gamecocks only had one down year, and the legendary coach is still at the helm, so it would seem risky to bury the team so quickly.
“We’ve been practicing like people are taking us lightly,” senior offensive lineman Mike Matulis said. “We’ve been coming out hitting for four weeks, and I think we’re ready to go hit somebody else. We’re ready to shock the world.”
The reason that Georgia still has to fear this team, which visits Athens the third game of the season: Spurrier. This is still his offense, and since 2009 these are the point totals the Gamecocks have put on Georgia:
37, 17, 45, 35, 30, 38.
And that low of 17 came in a Gamecock victory, when Spurrier schooled Todd Grantham by perpetually running Marcus Lattimore on the zone read.
Last year Spurrier had something for Jeremy Pruitt too. Spurrier had looked at film of South Carolina’s 2010 upset of Alabama, when Pruitt was the secondary coach for the Tide, and decided to attack the middle of the field. Then-South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson racked up 240 passing yards in the first half alone.
The reason the Gamecocks are forgotten in the East race? Lack of star talent. During and in the lead-up to its 11-win seasons the Gamecocks never hauled in a particularly highly-ranked class (14th nationally in 2009 was its best, according to 247Sports team rankings). But in almost each class there were in-state stars that Spurrier kept home: Clowney, Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery and Stephon Gilmore were the headliners, with other four-stars (such as tailback Mike Davis from Stone Mountain) also aiding the cause.
It helped offset the rocky tenure of quarterback Stephen Garcia, and then steady quarterback Connor Shaw arrived, and the program blossomed. Now, after another strong offensive year with Thompson, the team has anointed Connor Mitch, a junior with a reputation as a pocket passer. (Garcia and Shaw were dual threats.)
“He’s got a good arm, and he can move around in the pocket,” Adams said of Mitch.
But then there’s the defense, where the talent drop-off was most keenly felt. Minus Clowney, Devin Taylor, D.J. Swearinger and others, the Gamecocks ranked 94th nationally in total defense, and 92nd in scoring defense.
Jon Hoke was brought in to fix the defense, while the previous defensive coordinator, Lorenzo Ward, remains on staff. Hoke has committed to a 4-3 base, whereas last year the defense bounced between a 3-4 and 4-3, and it showed. This year’s group is also a bit more experienced, with many of the players having gone through trial by fire last year.
“They look faster, they look great,” Mutalis said. “Coach Hoke has done a great job with the defense, he really has.”
For what it’s worth, Spurrier and his team were in a relaxed mood after Wednesday’s practice. A few players were piling on Spurrier’s golf cart, which he uses to drive to and from the field because of his knees.
“Look at those clowns,” Spurrier said, looking over at the players, who laughed.
The Head Ball Coach walked over a few minutes later and took the driver’s seat. He turned the key, the cart turned on, and drove off with the players, off into the South Carolina evening.