In less than three weeks, the South Carolina football team will set out to defend its first ever SEC Eastern Division Championship. For the first time since joining the SEC, the Gamecocks have been picked to win the division for a second straight year.
"We've got a good group of guys," head coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday. "I think we've assembled, hopefully, one of our best teams ever – time will tell if it becomes a real good team or not. "
Though Carolina certainly won't overlook its season-opener against East Carolina, the road to Atlanta will officially start at 4:00 on September 10th when the Gamecocks travel to Athens to take on Georgia. Many believe the winner of that game will likely win the division. With Florida undergoing staff changes, Tennessee struggling to find talent, and Kentucky and Vanderbilt not being legit contenders, the winner of this game very well could play in Atlanta in December.
South Carolina will likely have its deepest, most talented team perhaps in school history in 2011. The Gamecocks have two legit SEC quarterbacks, a Heisman candidate at running back, receivers all over the place, depth on the line of scrimmage on both sides, and depth and talent at secondary, there's no reason to believe the Carolina can't repeat this year.
"We were not a dominant team by any means last year – seventh in (total) offense, seventh in (total) defense, special teams didn't do much," Spurrier said. "If we're going to have a big year we've got to play some ball better than we have here lately."
Many say Carolina snuck into the championship game a year ago. With a 5-3 record in the SEC, the Gamecocks weren't completely dominant as most SEC East winners have been. But that won't bring down that banner on the south end zone in Williams Brice Stadium, or make Gamecock fans forget just how special that year was. This year, the team is capable of leaving little doubt whether or not they deserve to be in Atlanta.
"We've got to go out there and play this year to see if that division title meant anything last year," Spurrier said. "We were very fortunate last year that the three other schools (Florida, Georgia, Tennessee) didn't have very good years I guess. We were only 5-3 – we were 5-3 in 2005 – but hopefully it's something we can build on. Our goal is to win the SEC. That's going to be our goal every year that I'm here because we should have a capable team if everything works out well for us."
While it may seem like a high goal, it's certainly one that's attainable.
Shell returns to practice
The scariest moment of the first week of practice was no doubt Saturday morning when the team was running sprints at the end of practice. Freshman offensive lineman Brandon Shell struggled to finish the sprint with the heat and offensive coach Shawn Elliott put his arm around the 6'6, 332-pound lineman and helped him finish his last sprint where trainers were waiting to take him into the cooling tent.
""Brandon had a little heat-related problem," Spurrier said. "All of our other guys were fine. But sometimes those big guys, maybe we should hold them out of that last run across the field. He got a little dizzy and so forth. Our trainers acted quickly and got his temperature down and got him into the cold tank. As a precaution, they took him to the hospital and checked him out. He was back at the meeting in the afternoon. It's always a scare when one of your players gets dizzy."
Spurrier was sure to credit the training staff for the quick action to get Shell's condition under control while waiting on the ambulance to transport him to a local hospital.
"Our trainers were super," Spurrier said. "Clint Haggard was textbook on how to handle it. It worked out. It was a good lesson for us. I never want to see that again, a player getting dizzy from the heat. We should have held him out. He's a big man. He just wasn't ready to run across the field that many times."
Shell returned to practice Monday morning in a yellow jersey, but did participate fully in all team activities without further incident. It will go down as a lesson learned for all.
"Fortunately, everything is fine now, but we're going to try to make sure we don't push those big guys like the little guys," Spurrier said. "The little guys can run all day. Those big guys can't quite do that. We'll do a better job of monitoring how much running some of the big guys do."
Getting the job done in the classroom
In college athletics today, many forget that they are supporting student-athletes, meaning they are students first and athletes second. South Carolina has taken tremendous strides to improve the academic life of their athletes, especially with the completion of the Dodie for the athletes to work on their school work and get tutored. That has paid off for the football team.
"I'd like to mention the GPA of our football team," Spurrier said. "We continue to set records here. I think it was 2.71. And we graduated 25 football players in the last calendar year, which is an all-time record here. Raymond Harrision, our head academic advisor and Maria Hickman deserve a lot of the credit for making sure our guys are going to classes, in the right classes and going to study hall and tutoring. We're really proud that our guys are graduating at a really high percentage now because it hasn't always been that way around here. Our guys do a good job in the classroom, and we're proud of them."
It's good to know that Carolina football players are not only finding success on the football field, but in the classroom as well.
Jadeveon Clowney continues to get a lot of attention during practices. Clowney continues to get around the offensive line and get to the quarterbacks at an alarming rate. Though they haven't done much to this point, Spurrier is impressed with the freshman.
"We haven't done that much, but obviously he can come off the ball and run around just about all of our tackles right now," Spurrier said. "It's still a ways off until we play, but he's right on schedule. We'll put him in some scrimmages the latter part of this week and let him go, then we'll really watch him play some."
If ‘practice sacks' were a recorded statistic, I'd dare say in just one week Clowney would probably be close to setting a school record for practice sacks in one season. But you'd never hear him brag.
"Jadeveon is a well-rounded young man. He's not a cocky kid," Spurrier said. "He's not coming in here and talking. He's just trying to be the best player he can be, and he's blended in very well with the guys. He realizes he has a ways to go, so he's practicing hard. We definitely plan on him getting a lot of action from the first game on."
Following Spurrier's annual golf outing prior to the opening of fall camp, Spurrier made a prediction that Gamecock fans would see something they haven't seen in nearly 10 years – a special team's touchdown. There's no doubt he's got plenty of reasons to feel that way.
Carolina has speed all over the place. Whether it be Damiere Byrd, Bruce Ellington, Ace Sanders, or even Sheldon Royster, the Gamecocks have recruited speed. Look for at least two of them to get a shot at breaking one.
Despite the new speed, Spurrier says there will be a familiar face returning kicks to start the season – D.J. Swearinger.
"D.J is probably going to be our first kickoff return guy because he hits it hard and breaks some arm tackles," Spurrier said. "He's a physical young man."
Spurrier is not sure who will return punts yet, but look for Byrd, Ellington, and Stephon Gilmore to get a hard look.
New special team's coach John Butler's biggest job will be finding a consistent punter. Though Patrick Fish and Mike Williamson have had some impressive punts, both are struggling to find consistency. With field position so important in the SEC, the Gamecocks cannot afford to have 20 yard punts this season. Spurrier believes he has the right man for the job to figure it out.
"I'm pretty impressed with our special teams coach , John Butler," Spurrier said. "I know I say it every year but I truly believe our special teams are going to be better this year. One of these years I'm going to be right. I think it's this year."
Ellington sets the record straight
The media was somewhat surprised to see a new face – Bruce Ellington – enter the press conference room with the offensive players Sunday. It soon became very clear why he was there when Spurrier entered the room.
"I asked Bruce to give the time frame and how he decided he wanted to play football to get the story straight," Spurrier said. "There was a misleading, fabricated story that I tried to recruit him and I jilted the basketball program. It wasn't true. But a lot of things we read aren't true."
Shortly after Ellington decided to play football, a local columnist wrote an article claiming Spurrier was trying to steal players away from the basketball team. That obviously wasn't true.
"I talked with coach Horn about wanting to come out and play football because I missed it," Ellington said. "I talked with him first before I ever came and talked with coach Spurrier about playing football. So, to get the story straight, coach Spurrier never talked with me until I went to him."
You can't always believe what you hear.
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