Spurrier evaluates offense at midway point

GamecockAnthem.com's Rich Taylor reports on head coach Steve Spurrier's midseason take on his Gamecock offense as they prepare for the traditionally tough stretch run beginning Saturday on the road against Kentucky.

What a difference a week makes.

The Gamecock fan base has been injected with renewed optimism on the heels of last Saturday's 31-24 win over Ole Miss in Oxford. Funny how a big win on the road has folks believing that maybe Spurrier can coach and Chris Smelley can play quarterback after all. But despite the good feelings pervading the Gamecock Nation, the Head Ball Coach cautions that, although progress certainly is being made, his team is "not there yet."

With half of the regular season already in the books, Carolina is two games over .500, with one conference win in three tries. Not great, but not bad.

"We wish we weren't 4-2," Spurrier said Tuesday. "It's not the worst record in the country. It's not the best, and we had our chances in a couple of games, and we won a game we could have lost. We're not quite there yet, no question about that."

Both conference losses were by a touchdown, as was the Gamecocks' lone league win over the Rebels. What does this mean? For starters, that there is VERY little separation between most of the teams in the league.

"Well, it's pretty fine," Spurrier said of the line between winning and losing on most SEC Saturdays. "It's two or three turnovers, one play, one fumble here, one decision here or there. It's just close. I think both of our losses we had more first downs and yards than our opponents. But that doesn't mean anything because we didn't score much, and they did.

"They scored on their red zone possessions. Things like that, red zone possessions, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals, is huge. And of course turnovers are huge also. So we didn't do it in the losses. We did it fairly well last week in a win. Won the turnover game, scored touchdowns most of the time we were down there."

Contributing mightily to those touchdowns was Smelley. The reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Week torched Ole Miss for 327 yards and three TDs with only one interception. A week after being booed in an uninspiring win over UAB in Williams-Brice, Smelley was back in the favor of fans who were fervently calling for his head only days before.

But for all of the positives displayed by the sophomore signal-caller in the Ole Miss win, Spurrier cautions to not get too carried away. Not yet, at least.

"Well Chris had a good game," analyzed Spurrier. "He did not have a super game. He had some bad plays here and there that hopefully he can correct and play better. But he did make a lot of good throws here and there and our receivers caught everything. We had a lot of good fortune in that game. I don't know if I can remember a game where we caught at least five balls with one foot in bounds on the sideline.

"He (Smelley) needs to play better, though," Spurrier critiqued. "He had some errant plays that we need to correct. We need to audible a little bit more. Our communication skills are not very good. We only changed about two plays the whole day there, and it wasn't that loud at Ole Miss last week. We're working on it, and we've still got a ways to go. I think we all know that."

The big plays that had been largely absent from the Gamecock passing attack re-emerged against Ole Miss, including a key 63-yarder to Jared Cook and a 20-yard scoring toss to Jason Barnes on third-and-goal early in the second quarter. But again, despite those successes, Spurrier knows there is still much work to be done.

"Well, we hit some, but we missed some too," he said. "And didn't throw some, too. So we could have tossed some more down there in the end zone but we didn't. So we're not there yet. We're a struggling bunch, but we're not struggling quite as much as we were two weeks ago."

Fan favorite Stephen Garcia was expected to play against Ole Miss, but never got into the game. But even with Smelley playing "lights out," Spurrier certainly hasn't excluded Garcia from the game plan.

"It's helpful if you have one quarterback (and) everybody knows who's going to be your quarterback," Spurrier said of Smelley. "But there may be a place for Stephen Garcia to go in there and do some things this week. (We) just never seemed to get to that point last week. We'll try to get Stephen ready to play some if the situation calls for it, but Chris, he's our starting quarterback, and he certainly could and hopefully (will) go the distance.

"There's some throws he can make that he does probably better than all of our other quarterbacks," Spurrier answered when asked if Garcia would be called on only in short-yardage situations. "We wouldn't want to just limit him to going in there and running occasionally."

The play of the Carolina receivers against Ole Miss was arguably more impressive, or perhaps surprising, than the play of Smelley. Leading the way was Jason Barnes with seven catches for 77 yards and two touchdowns, including several acrobatic grabs on the sideline.

"Jason Barnes had three (catches) where he got just one foot down by inches to keep drives going," Spurrier praised. "Jason has just come around the last couple of games. The last couple of weeks he has made a good effort (and) worked hard. I read where he credited Moe Brown for saying ‘hang in there, keep working hard and your time will come'. We always tell our guys to be ready when your opportunity comes. So he was ready. The last two or three weeks he's really improved. It looks like he has a chance to be a big-time receiver."

Spurrier was impressed by more than just the encouraging words Brown had for his fellow wide receiver. His play on the field stood out as well.

"Moe Brown had one of his best games last week," Spurrier acknowledged. "Moe caught that little quick screen and ran it for about 15 yards twice, and his blocking downfield was much improved. It's nice to have several guys try to play receiver now. We've got competition for playing time out there now. We've got some good competition. Guys are acting like they want to play and it has helped all of them."

On the less than positive side, Spurrier pointed out that there are still those players that do not seem to be able to give the all-out effort expected of a scholarship football player. And though the players in question are few in number, it is obvious that ANY lack of commitment sticks in Spurrier's craw.

"We have 85 on scholarship and about 20 to 25 walk-on players who do a super job," Spurrier explained. "They all have a little different level of commitment. You wish all of them were 100% and we do have a lot of 100% guys. And then we have 95 per-centers and some 90's. And then out of 85 (scholarship players), you have about your eight 50-60% guys. So you have to either weed them out or let ‘em know that's not going to work here. Gotta weed ‘em out somehow, let them transfer, go somewhere else or get with the program.

"It's just some of the lazy scholarship guys that the commitment level is not what you need," he continued. "You hope to change them (and) a lot of ‘em will change over time, but if they don't after a while, you've just got to file them, put them on the scout team. When renewal time comes up, sometimes you just have to say ‘We don't have room for you now. You can't get with our program'. And if they can't get with your program, then you have a reason to not renew them.

"If they're not playing the way that you're trying to coach ‘em, go ahead and just put them on the bench. You can only yell and scream for so long. That's called coaching. Just put ‘em on the bench and try somebody else.

"But you do give them another chance. And when they come back, usually they're better players. That's been my experience. I wish we had some more offensive linemen to do that with because a couple of them need to go to the bench for a while, but we don't think we have an equal replacement (for them) right now."

So with a 4-1 Kentucky team looming on Saturday, Spurrier hopes the Gamecocks can put together their second strong offensive performance in as many weeks. As for evaluating just how good this team is at the season's halfway point, he is realistic.

"We're hoping we're making progress and time will tell if we are. We're very healthy right now at the half way point, and we realize we've still got the best teams coming up. The strength of schedule is coming up these last six. We're looking forward to it.

"Why not us? I still believe, ‘Why not us?'"

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