Spurrier, Gamecocks Looking to Take Next Step

HOOVER, Ala. -- Steve Spurrier stepping to the podium at SEC football media days used to be the highlight of the three day gathering. While other coaches wallowed in cliches about being sound in the kicking game, Spurrier would hold forth on any number of topics while uncorking the occasional zinger at another school or coach.

As he heads into his sixth season leading South Carolina's program, things have changed.

One question Thursday summed up the difference between then and now perfectly. "Are you worried", asked a reporter, "Robbie Caldwell (interim Vandy coach) might be taking your title as most quotable coach in the conference"?

While Spurrier could care less about his ranking on the quotability scale, the idea of having any concern about Vanderbilt isn't so far fetched. South Carolina defeated the Commodores last season, snapping a two game losing streak against them. It's a long way from Spurrier's Florida days of dominance.

The question for Spurrier is when his Gamecocks can take the next step from respectable but unspectacular to being a genuine factor in the conference race. Spurrier believes his team is closer to achieving that goal than it has been.

"We've got the best group of athletes since we've been there. They have the best attitudes - their work habits and so forth have been excellent. Now we need to get past seven wins. We need to win big at South Carolina."

As has frequently been the case in the past three seasons, many questions about the Gamecocks revolve around quarterback Stephen Garcia. Spurrier was highly critical of the redshirt junior from Tampa's approach during the spring, but seems happier with what he's been hearing about him over the summer since attendance for voluntary workouts has been close to 100 percent.

"I'm just trying to express what he needs to do to help our team - that's avoid the sacks and make better decisions."

Spurrier indicated Garcia will open camp as his starter, but did say he expects to also play early enrolling freshman Connor Shaw this fall at times as well. Defensive back Stephon Gilmore will continue to be South Carolina's "wildcat" guy, with the formation expected to be used much more frequently than last season.

South Carolina is one of the schools with a player linked to the ongoing NCAA investigation of a potentially agent financed gathering in South Beach. Tight end Weslye Saunders told Spurrier he did nothing wrong in making the trip, and for now the coach is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"The question is who paid for (the trip), who paid for what they did there. When the investigation is finished, I guess we'll find out about all the guys... we'll let it play out."

On the defensive side of the ball, South Carolina features seven returning starters but lost their all-time sack kick Eric Norwood as well as defensive end Clifton Geathers to the NFL Draft. Despite that, Spurrier sees some positive signs.

"We're going to have a real good defense and hopefully get a few more turnovers this year."

That's been Spurrier's trademark in Columbia - excellent defense and finding ways to win some games despite poor offensive line and QB play. For them to get over the seven win hump that's frustrated him, it's going to take improvement up front. If they can contend for a first trip to Atlanta, maybe we'll start to see traces of the old Spurrier when he returns to Media Days next season.

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