Youth Will Be Served In Starkville

With kickoff a mere four days away, Coach Steve Spurrier addressed the media on Sunday afternoon and discussed the season opening contest against Mississippi State. The upbeat Spurrier seemed generally pleased with his team's effort over the past few weeks, but at the same time, curious to see how all of the Gamecocks young talent would perform in a real game situation on Thursday night.

"We are looking forward to see what kind of team we have. Like all of you know, we are playing a lot of new players, players that haven't played much before. We think they are good players and we are going to find out how good or how much work we need to do when the game is over Thursday night. We'll see what happens out there," Spurrier said.

The Gamecocks have eleven freshmen on the two deep, as well as three JUCO transfers that have not yet played a down of SEC football, and Coach Spurrier admittedly stated that the younger players are an unknown commodity heading into the season opener. "I've been doing this awhile," Spurrier said. "Until you see your players who haven't played before in a real game, it is a little bit of an unknown. I think they will make a strong account for themselves, handle themselves. Until we go do it, it is `How are we going to do?' Gotta go play some time, hopefully our guys are ready to play well."

As has been the case throughout fall camp, Coach Spurrier praised several of the team's freshmen on Sunday afternoon, including the talk of the town, Chris Smelley. "Well obviously in preseason, as you guys know, our quarterback Chris Smelley has statistically been the best. Now, a lot of times he was in there with the third (team) offense against the third (team) defense and so forth. Statistically he has thrown more completions, more yards, and more touchdowns. Spurrier continued by saying, "He's certainly well prepared, like Blake was probably going into the season last year. Chris has been a quarterback since about the seventh grade. He's played that position a whole lot and they got in the shotgun and threw it about every down too. He's been a passing quarterback. He's unknown but we think he will play well when his time comes. Usually a quarterback is about as good as their pass protection and their receivers getting open. He's depending on those guys up front and the receivers are dependent also. It all starts up front. You can't just blame the quarterback if it goes bad and the offensive is struggling. Now if he's got guys open and he can't hit them and he's got time, then we better make some changes. It all goes together as we all know."

Spurrier also commented on a few other freshmen that have caught his eye in fall camp. "O.J. Murdock has done some good things catching the ball. The backs have run pretty well. Defensively, Rodney Paulk has made some tackles; Emanuel Cook is going to be a starter on defense, another true freshman. Eric Norwood, defensive end, has been an active player. Captain Munnerlyn, a defensive back, is slated to play a whole bunch. Those players have caught our eye as have some players who played a bit last year."

With so much youth across the board, the Gamecocks will look to rely on a veteran group of offensive skill players this season, led by quarterback Blake Mitchell. Spurrier commented on Mitchell's progress heading into his second season by saying, "I think Blake is going to play better but we have to go play the game and see how he does. At times, he is throwing the ball much better than last year, his timing much improved, it's another year and he is more knowledgeable of the game. We are looking forward to him having a big year for us. Hopefully it will start happening on Thursday night. He played pretty well last year." Spurrier continued by saying, "Hopefully we can make more good things happen this year. I think he is much more knowledgeable and maybe we got some better athletes or our receiving corps is a little better, although it is the same guys with Sidney (Rice) and Kenny (McKinley), but I think they are much improved. With Cory (Boyd) back there, it gives us another running back. The offensive line I think will play as well as last year. So, wait and see."

Another weapon that the Gamecock offense is thrilled to be returning is the versatile Syvelle Newton, who is back after suffering a torn achilles in the fourth quarter of the victory against Vanderbilt last season. Newton, who has accumulated 2,188 total yards and 17 touchdowns in his first three seasons as a Gamecock, could see action at wide receiver, running back, and quarterback against the Bulldogs. Coach Spurrier commented on how he plans to use Newton on Thursday by saying, "We will try to use him whatever way we need to try to win a game. If we are struggling with a normal quarterback dropping back and throwing, then we may have to try Syvelle in there." Spurrier then re-confirmed what he had stated a few weeks ago about Newton's return. "He's very close to 100 percent as far as running with the ball in his hands; he looks very much like he did last year."

The attention then turned to Mississippi State, who will play host to the Gamecocks on Thursday evening. Coach Spurrier praised the Bulldogs defense and insisted that they will be a formidable opponent in week one. "They have a big, strong defensive line, very active, they come off the ball. Their defense was a little better than ours last year, as far as the rankings go. They are a physical team, play hard, a big, strong bunch of guys. I know they didn't win a bunch last year, but they won their last game so they are on a one-game winning streak and we are on a two-game losing streak right now. I think each year every team has their own personality, so we will just have to wait and see how their's is and how ours is on Thursday night."

Coach Spurrier concluded the season-opening press conference by sharing his gut feeling entering into the 2006 campaign. "At times we can look very impressive. We certainly have thrown the ball much better this pre-season than last year at this time. I think everybody is picking us at fourth in the East, which they look at returning players, this that and the other, and that's probably where we should be," said Spurrier. He then went on to finish much the same way that he had started the day, by talking about the team's youth. "I think we would be doing the wrong things to try and put too great of expectations on freshmen and sophomores that are basically going to be doing most of the playing this year. We are approaching the season with similar goals compared to last year. We should win more than we lose and go from there, and who knows where that will take us. My gut feeling is that we are building a team to compete at the top. We are building it. We are just going to try to compete our hearts out and try to learn, improve as the season goes, and we will see where we are."

Other Notes:

After criticizing a handful of players over the past several months for needing a better commitment level, Coach Spurrier praised the overall commitment level of the team during fall camp.

Coach Spurrier acknowledged Marque Hall for having an excellent pre-season, and mentioned that some other players will hopefully step up along the defensive front, including Stanley Doughty, Nathan Pepper, and Joel Reaves.

Mike Davis and Cory Boyd will both see extensive action in the backfield this season, and there will be times when they line up in the backfield together. How much action they see will be determined by how often the offense can stay on the field, according to Spurrier.

Moe Brown suffered an ankle injury last week, but he is close to 100% now. Mike West, on the other hand, is still struggling with a nagging hamstring injury, and he will likely be limited on Thursday.

Spurrier stated that "Ryan Succop is our kicker," and he hopes the team will have improved special teams play across the board under the direction of Coach Fred Chatham.

Coach Spurrier praised fullback Lanard Stafford for his continued improvement and re-iterated that he will be the starting fullback this year.

Jared Cook will see action at both tight end and wide receiver.

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