Steve Spurrier has his swagger back.
The Head Ball Coach has become somewhat understated from his brash, style that entertained both fans and media during his successful stint at the University of Florida.
It has taken longer for Spurrier to get the University of South Carolina football program when he envisioned when taking the job on Nov. 23, 2004. Although the Gamecocks have not suffered a losing season under his guidance, the team also had not won the Southeastern Conference East division title to play for the conference title until the 2010 campaign.
USC captured the East title in convincing fashion traveling to Gainesville, Fla. and laying a 36-14 beating on Spurrier's alma mater. Although the Gamecocks lost their final two games -- the SEC Championship game against eventual national champion Auburn and a Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup against Florida State -- they finally announced to the nation's toughest league that they have arrived.
"We're a pretty good team, but not a great team," Spurrier said during SEC Media Days, in Hoover, Ala. on July 19. "We lost our last two games. We have opportunity to be good, but we still have to go out and prove it."
For the first time the Gamecocks appear to have the talent to not only compete, but play with the premier teams in the league.
In sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore and junior wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, USC features not only the two best players at their position in the SEC, but potentially in the country. On defense junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore is also among nation's best.
The great thing about Marcus is he works harder than anyone on our team," said Spurrier. "The same is true of Alshon. When your two best players are also your hardest workers it sets a great example to the rest of the team."
What makes this team different than other Gamecock squads is its strength up front. Already better than two-deep on the defensive line which feature All-SEC end Devon Taylor. The team also added some high regarded recruits which should increase depth.
The Gamecocks should also produce their most physical offensive lines in years, led by senior tackles Rokevious Watkins and Kyle Nunn.
--Whether or not the Gamecocks manage to claim a first SEC Championship and potentially battle in the national championship game may fall on the shoulders of redshirt senior quarterback Stephen Garcia.
Entering the season having started 30 games and played in 35, Garcia could be the most talented quarterback in the SEC as he has completed 528 passes for 5,753 yards and 80 touchdowns and rushed for 606 yards and 12 career scores.
He was suspended late in spring practice for conduct detrimental to the team.
Although Garcia, who has already graduated, has been allowed to take part in offseason workouts with his team, he is hanging by a thread as another wrong step will probably mean the end of his college career.
"Stephen hasn't done anything really bad, just some really stupid things," said coach Steve Spurrier. "We have been pleased with what he's accomplished during the summer and believe he will have a good year."
If Garcia makes a misstep and is dismissed from the team sophomore Connor Shaw would be the likely replacement.
--Despite entering the SEC as one of the top two high school running backs in the country, Marcus Lattimore exceeded expectations during his freshman season.
Starting all 14 Gamecock games in 2010, he rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns, while catching 29 passes for 412 yards and two scores.
That was enough to get him named to virtually every All-American team and receive mention as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
Lattimore has not rested on his laurels, however, packing on a few pounds of muscle while increasing his speed. After playing at 217 as a freshman he now tips the scales at 231 pounds. He has also increased his strength.
"I needed to put on a few pounds and get stronger," said Lattimore. "If I am going to carry the ball as many times as I need to, it as something I needed to do. It has worked out well. Not only did I get bigger and strong, but faster."
--USC has returns seven players who started all 14 games in 2010 -- quarterback Stephen Garcia, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, center T. J. Johnson, defensive tackle Travian Robertson, defensive end Devin Taylor and former guard Rokevious Watkins.
The team also returns 81 percent of its rushing yards and 79 percent of its receiving yards from last season. Eight of the squad's top 10 tacklers also return.
Marcus Lattimore with 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns, accounts for a big chunk of the rushing total, while Alshon Jeffery caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns.
USC's top four leading tacklers last season -- cornerback Stephon Gilmore (79), Spur Antonio Allen (70), strong safety DeVonte Holloman (69) and free safety D. J. Swearinger (66) -- all return.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: South Carolina will be tested early as, following a Sept. 3rd game against East Carolina which will be played in Charlotte, N.C., it travels to Athens for a SEC battle against the University of Georgia. The winner of that game will receive an early boost in the race for the East Division title.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: While the USC appears set at running back with sophomore Marcus Lattimore, the team hopes junior Kenny Miles is prepared to provide the standout a quality backup. The Gamecocks must also find a replacement for graduated combo tight end/fullback Patrick DiMarco who provided the initial blocking to spring Lattimore.
On defense the re-worked secondary must find a way to improve on what was a disappointing campaign in 2010. The leader of the group is junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Senior Akeem Auguste has been moved back to corner from safety and will start opposite Gilmore if healthy.
With safety DeVonte Holloman moving to the hybrid SPUR position and D.J. Swearinger finding a home at boundary safety, where a free safety, sophomore Jimmy Legree takes over the starting slot at free safety.
AREA OF CONCERN: For six years the Gamecocks have had a solid placekicking game behind placekickers Ryan Succop and Spencer Lanning. The team must start over both there and at punter this year with senior Jay Wooten listed the top place kicker and senior Joey Scribner-Howard the top punter.
A complement to Alshon Jeffery must also be found as Tori Gurley left school to pursue a career in the National Football League. DeAngelo Smith appeared to be the most likely candidate following a hot spring. He is listed third on the preseason depth chart, however. Ace Sanders, D.L. Moore and Jason Barnes return while Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd could provide sparks.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have a chance to be a good team, but we haven't proven it yet. We had a pretty good, but not great season last year although we were positioned to do just that. We lost our last two games, though. But the reports I have received from the summer workouts has been good. I think we have the potential to be a good football team." -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Steve Spurrier, seventh year at South Carolina, 233-114-2, career record, 44-33 at South Carolina.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Marcus Lattimore has given the Gamecocks something it has rarely had under Steve Spurrier. He has the ability to gain tough yards and wear a defense down. He is prepared to repeat that this season.
BREAKOUT STAR: After starting last season at right guard, senior Rokevious Watkins moves to right tackle this year. He as voted by league coaches to the All-SEC third team as he is a player who has the size and ability to play at the next level.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Rock Hill (S.C.) phenom defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the universally rated No. 1 high school recruit in the country last season. He is expected to make an immediate impact and has been discussed among the top prep prospects to enter college in the last 10 years. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will probably start him out as a situational pass rusher at the start of the season, but it should not take long before he is a full-timer.
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