We've all heard it before. Stephen Garcia is a changed man.
For the first time in his South Carolina career, it appears to be true.
After being suspended for the first part of spring practice after violating team rules in the days prior to the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season, Garcia stood before the media and said it would never happen again.
Garcia was soon after suspended for the remainder of the spring for causing a disruption at a university function.
The light-bulb may have finally clicked.
Garcia realizes this is the last opportunity he has to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL. Already behind the 8-ball due to his numerous mistakes during his five years in Columbia, Garcia knows it's going to take a big season to be taken serious in the 2012 NFL draft.
"Stephen Garcia has changed his lifestyle almost completely," head coach Steve Spurrier said after his golf outing Thursday afternoon. "He's been on time, no goofing around - very serious - and has shown commitment we have never seen before. Hopefully that will continue and I expect it to continue. I expect him to be a different person."
As many who follow the Gamecock program closely know, Spurrier has been very reluctant to throw out praise to his embattled quarterback. To hear Spurrier speak about Garcia like that has to lead you to believe that there may be something to it.
On the field, Garcia will leave as one of the greatest quarterbacks in South Carolina history. He is in the top five in virtually every career passing stat. Garcia ranks third in pass attempts (903), completions (528), touchdown passes (43), passing yards (6,753), and ranks fourth in completion percentage (59%). Garcia will likely move up to second in touchdown passes and passing yards this season - and is 3,200 yards away from surpassing Todd Ellis in passing yards. Perhaps the biggest statistic to Gamecock fans is that Garcia is a win away from leaving Carolina a perfect 3-0 against arch-rival Clemson.
Despite his success on the field, it has been his problems off the field that has defined his career. Those problems haven't kept Garcia from starting every game since the 2009 Outback Bowl against Iowa.
"He's been the best here and that's why he hasn't been pulled out much," Spurrier said. "We just felt like he was still our best guy when he made some errors and had some mental mistakes. Stephen is a big, tough kid. He can take a hit and he can run over a guy if he needs to."
Spurrier believes the one thing that is keeping him from being a great quarterback is all mental.
"He just needs to get his focus really sharp," Spurrier said. "If he does those things I believe he can really have an outstanding year. Quarterback is about eighty percent mental, so if he can keep his mind sharp all year he can have a big year."
Despite all the praise for his senior quarterback, Spurrier would not officially name him the starter for the 2011 opener against East Carolina.
"We'll still have competition for the job and make a decision as soon as we need to," Spurrier said. "We think Stephen is really on track to perform well and grow as a first-class person. That's where he is."
Only time will tell, but who really expects someone other than #5 to be under center when the Gamecock offense takes the field in Charlotte?
Spurrier on Mangus
It was hoovering in the air like a dark cloud Thursday.
It was only a matter of time before Spurrier was asked if he cared to address the incident that led to quarterback coach G.A. Mangus being arrested earlier this week in Greenville. The head coach didn't have much to say, but did say he expects Mangus to be back on the sidelines at some point this season.
"I think he's going to be back this season," Spurrier said. "G.A. is very remorseful. He knows that if he has one more incident such as this, his coaching career could be over. He'll take the punishment and hopefully it'll be a good lesson for all coaches."
As is the University policy the athletic department will let everything run its course before announcing any further punishment, but it is highly unlikely that Mangus has coached his final game at Carolina.
While Mangus is out, Spurrier will take over coaching the quarterbacks, though he said with a smile that it won't be that big of a change.
"I've tried to take over that even when he was there to tell you the truth," Spurrier said. "If he's not out there we'll still be able to practice."
Players Ready for the Season
After a very successful summer in 2010 led to a tremendous amount of success on the field, there was very little doubt that the 2011 summer would be any different.
"Our guys have had a good summer from all we hear," Spurrier said. "(Strength coach) Craig Fitzgerald has told me that (the) guys have had super camaraderie, they all like each other, and the spirit has been good. Workouts have been very good thus far - just about all the guys have made them. Attendance has been near 100% which, six or seven years ago, would have been unbelievable. Times have changed around here. I think we all know times have changed."
Perhaps the biggest reason for the change in the culture of the team has been the quality of the players being recruited. Spurrier credits that to the facility upgrades that began with the Dodie Academic Enrichment Facility.
"The biggest reason I think has been the facilities have been upgraded and we started recruiting the top players in South Carolina," Spurrier said. "It really started with Stephon Gilmore, and after him Alshon (Jeffery) and then Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney this year. Then we were able to pick out some really top players in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and so forth. Then up in New Jersey."
The upgrades are certainly not done for the football program. Work continues in the old Farmer's Market across from Williams-Brice to improve the area outside the stadium, and the new video board will soon be in place inside the stadium.
Spurrier put a little bit of pressure under new special team's coach John Butler.
"I'm going to make a prediction today - we score on special teams this year," the head coach said. "He has the opportunity to have the first score since I've been here. We're going to block a punt, run one back, or kickoff back or something."
South Carolina has not returned a punt for a touchdown since 2003 and has not returned a kick since 2002. The eight year drought could finally end this year due to the playmakers the Gamecocks can put back there as return men.
"We've got some speed guys - Damiere Byrd may be one of the fastest guys in the SEC this year," Spurrier said. "And of course Bruce Ellington is a return guy also. He can run all day and (has) good speed, quickness, and we certainly believe he is going to be a big help also."
Butler's biggest obstacle in his first year will be on the other side of special teams. It's always been said that you don't notice your kicker until you don't have one. With Ryan Succop and, most recently, Spencer Lanning, Gamecock fans have been spoiled in recent years.
"Our kicking game is a little unknown," Spurrier said. "Spencer Lanning was an outstanding kicker and punter. Glad to see he is going to get a shot with the Chicago Bears. Lanning made a bunch of clutch field goals - I think he made everything at Clemson, at Florida - and punted well all year."
It's going to be up to a group of six guys to take over the duties. Spurier said that redshirt senior Jay Wooten will likely take over the kicking the duties. Wooten, a transfer from North Carolina, connected on 4-of-6 kicks and all 11 extra points he attempted in his freshman year as a Tar Heel. After sitting out the 2009 season as a transfer, Wooten handled a majority of the kick-off duties last season. He had five touchbacks in 65 kicks and converted his only extra point attempt of the season against Troy.
Redshirt freshman Patrick Fish is the favorite to handle the punting duties. A two-sport star in high school in South Carolina, Fish was rated a two-star prospect as a kicker.
For the first time since the SEC began division play, a team other than Florida, Tennessee, or Georgia has been picked to win the Eastern division. A year after capturing their first SEC Eastern Division championship, South Carolina has been picked by virtually every respected news outlet to win the division in 2011. Some have gone a step farther and has predicted that the Gamecocks will compete for a National Championship. It's new territory for Carolina, and some may wonder how the Gamecock players will handle it.
"We hope we're smart enough to handle it," Spurrier said. "We hope some day to want to be picked - you want to put a team together that wants to be picked."
Spurrier has apparently already built a team that wants to be picked, but once the season rolls around it'll be business as usual
"We won't talk about that once the season starts," Spurrier said. "We'll just talk about the game that week and try to get better as we go. We've got a lot of areas we need to improve, so that's what we will be talking about."
It all begins next week. South Carolina is set to open up fall camp next Wednesday, August 3rd. Players will report Tuesday and will get down to business the following day.
"We're looking forward to practicing," Spurrier said. "We're looking forward to getting out and trying to piece it all together and see what we can do this year. First game in Charlotte - East Carolina. They're a good team. It will be a good opening test for us. We'll look forward to that one and then obviously the next game is a huge one within the division."
Gamecock Nation is certainly looking forward to it as well.
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