Spurrier looking forward to season opener

The Gamecocks will kick off the 2008 season Thursday night against an opponent that is both familiar and new, the NC State Wolfpack. That dichotomy is fitting for this year's edition of the Gamecocks, who are the most experienced team Steve Spurrier has had at USC, but are also breaking in a new quarterback and defensive coordinator.

Former conference foes in the ACC, the Gamecocks and Wolfpack first met in 1900, when they actually played twice in a home and home series, with Carolina winning both times. However, the two have not played since 1999, and NC State has not visited Columbia since 1991. NC State won both of those meetings, and has won four straight against Carolina dating back to 1988. Carolina trails in the all-time series, but leads 18-9-1 in Columbia.

Like many years, Gamecock fans have high expectations entering the season. Not only does Carolina have more experienced players now, but even with uncertainty at some positions, the overall talent level is higher than it has been in years.

"I've certainly grown to really appreciate the Carolina football fans," Spurrier said. "They get tremendously excited this time of year, and the reason is they have hope that maybe something really good can happen this year. Hopefully we've got a team that can give them hope and results. But time will only tell if we have that type of team. We do have hope good things are going to happen this year."

"We do have better athletes, as far as size, speed [and] strength," Spurrier continued. "We have a new quarterback, Tommy Beecher, that is an unknown. He hasn't played much. He has the capability to make excellent decisions throughout the game. We have to wait to see how he does."

Tommy Beecher will be making his debut as the starting quarterback for Carolina, but Spurrier has no plans to treat his young signal caller with kid gloves. The Wolfpack will also be starting a new face in freshman quarterback Russell Wilson, but plan to give a few series to senior Daniel Evans, who started last season. In the past, Spurrier has similarly given his backup a series so the starter can get a view of the game from the sidelines, but he said the only way Chris Smelley will spell Beecher is if Beecher is hurt.

"Tommy's going to get a chance to go the distance," Spurrier said. "Tommy's our quarterback, and Tommy has proven he's our best guy right now. If Tommy gets hurt, we're confident [Smelley] can go in there and play well. He's better than he was last year."

With the first game of the season also comes the first depth chart of the season. There were several noteworthy decisions and surprises on the depth chart released Sunday afternoon.

Sophomore Hutch Eckerson has earned the starting nod at left tackle over highly touted newcomer Jarriel King and talented redshirt freshman Quintin Richardson. King and Richardson are listed as the second and third team left tackles, respectively.

After an impressive spring, it appeared freshman Akeem Auguste could overtake senior Carlos Thomas as the starting cornerback opposite Captain Munnerlyn. Indeed, Thomas finds himself starting the year as a backup, but not to Auguste. Senior Stoney Woodson is listed as the starter. Auguste is on the third team. "Stoney is a senior, he's started a lot around here," said Spurrier. "I'm sure Carlos will play a bit, and Akeem. Akeem's right there."

Against N.C. State, at least, the 4-2-5 will be the Gamecocks' base defense. There is no listing for strongside linebacker, and Darian Stewart is listed as the starter at the Spur position, with Larry Freeman backing him up. Stewart is still questionable to play because of a bruised heel. Chris Culliver will get the starting nod over Mark Barnes at Stewart's vacated free safety spot. Jasper Brinkley is expected to be ready to start at middle linebacker Thursday, but if his heel injury keeps him out, Rodney Paulk will start in his place.

After a battle that lasted all summer, the Gamecocks have finally decided on a punter. Sort of. Sophomore Spencer Lanning is listed as the starter over freshman Ryan Doerr, however, Spurrier said that there is a good chance both players will punt. "We may use both of them there," he said. "Coach Ray Rychleski said that's something he may want to do."

Culliver, Barnes, and Freeman were all wide receivers last season, but are now expected to be major contributors on defense. Freeman was expected to see a lot of action at receiver, so his move was a bit of a surprise. Culliver and Barnes were talented high school safeties who wanted to try their hand at wide receiver first, so their success on the other side of the ball is no shocker. Working with the offense gives all three some extra insight into how the offense works, but Spurrier joked that it also gives them an advantage in practice.

"We were out there trying to audible the other day," recalled Spurrier. "I said, ‘Well, [former wide receiver] Carlos knows all our audibles, Larry Freeman knows them all, Culliver knows them all. We've got to use phony audibles against our defense all the time."

Spurrier drew some attention over the summer when he said that Clemson has an easier schedule than Carolina, and went on to say that the SEC is better than the ACC. Those comments will come into immediate focus with the Gamecocks playing the ACC's Wolfpack. It will no doubt be brought up several more times, when Carolina plays Clemson, and makes a return visit to Raleigh next season. Although it was not exactly planned this way, the home-and-home series against NC State, as well as the home-and-home with UNC, will provide an unofficial referendum on whether Spurrier was right. The matchups are not entirely an accident, though, as Spurrier sought out NC State and UNC because he thought they were at the same level in the ACC pecking order as the Gamecocks in the SEC.

"Virginia Tech called down here when I first got here [to schedule a game], and I told Coach [Frank] Beamer, ‘I don't think we need to play you guys right now,'" Spurrier said. "They've been the top team in the ACC. We're sort of in the middle [of the SEC], and the North Carolina schools have been in the middle. I thought it was a pretty evenly matched game that the fans would like to see."

When asked about Tom O'Brien's history of fielding physical, hard nosed teams that play efficient football and don't beat themselves, Spurrier commented on the former Boston College coach's knack for fielding strong teams.

"His teams at Boston College were good. That team came close to winning the conference championship last year. Most guys that were on that team were guys that he had recruited and trained," he said. "He likes to run the ball. Boston College has won their last eight bowl games. He won six or seven of them. At NC State, they've turned the corner and they're a good looking team. His teams don't play with a bunch of mistakes. His players play with good discipline and within the rules. We're trying to get that established here."

As for his own team, Spurrier is looking forward to seeing if the progress the Gamecocks have made in the weight room and on the practice fields this offseason translates to improved play on game days this fall.

"You don't know what you've got until you go play. We're trying to stay a little under the radar with not talking too big. We'll let our play on the field do the talking that needs to be said. I don't know if we have a good team right now or an average team. I don't know yet. We'll have to wait until Thursday. We`ve done a lot of things different, but we'll just have to go see this Thursday night."

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