Gamecocks return to practice, begin bowl prep
"The team looked okay; we had some spirit today," said Steve Spurrier. "We had a decent practice. We'll do a little bit Monday and get ready to go full go Tuesday."
Saturday marked the first practice session since wide receiver Moe Brown called a players-only meeting following the season ending loss to Clemson. That meeting was intended to quash any frustration and get the players re-energized and refocused heading into bowl preparations. While players were noticeably more enthusiastic after practice than they had been in some time, Spurrier said he will not know whether the meeting served its purpose until January 1.
"How we play will determine whether the meeting was any good or not," he said. "Hopefully we can coach a little bit better between now and the bowl game and really represent the University of South Carolina in a positive way."
The Gamecocks have not begun significant game planning for Iowa yet, but they have started film study. On film, Spurrier sees a very good team that lost its four games by a combined twelve points and won five of their last six games. Individually, the Hawkeyes boast the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Doak Walker Award winner in running back Shonn Green, as well as Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Mitch King, first team All-Big Ten offensive lineman Seth Olsen, and second team offensive linemen Rob Bruggeman, Kyle Calloway and Bryan Bulaga.
"They're one of the best teams in the Big Ten," Spurrier said. "They could have had a sensational season, but they didn't quite win the close ones. They've got the best running back in the country in Shonn Green. I think half the offensive line made all-conference, and their defense ranked tenth in the country [in rushing defense, as well as eighth in scoring defense]. We've got to play well to have a chance to beat them."
The Gamecocks will be without a pair of reserves when they face Iowa, it was announced last week. Junior Chris Hail and freshman Donte'e Nicholls were both dismissed from the team for repeated violations of team rules. Hail, who had bounced between wide receiver and defensive back during his career, struggled with off the field issues his entire career, but had become a key special teams contributor as a gunner on punt coverage. Nicholls was a scout team performer on the defensive line. Spurrier declined to comment on the two players.
"I don't have to talk about that," he said. "‘Violation of team rules' is all I have to say about that."
McKinley, Garcia hoping for strong showing in Outback Bowl
Spurrier has already announced that he plans to try to win the Outback Bowl behind the passing tandem of record-setting wide receiver Kenny McKinley and Tampa native Stephen Garcia (who noted he "had to get a few tickets for some people"). McKinley is the senior, and is well versed in looking at the big picture. Therefore it is not surprising that the freshman Garcia fired the first shot across the Hawkeye's bow in the pre-bowl buildup.
"They're stopping the run pretty well, but they've been playing against Big Ten teams," Garcia said of Iowa. "The speed of the SEC is a lot faster. We're going to try to play fast and play physical and come out of there with a win."
That mountains-out-of-molehills comment aside, Garcia seems to be at home with his new role as a team leader. Spurrier criticized Garcia for not always putting in the effort necessary to be an SEC quarterback, so Garcia has made a stronger effort in the film room.
"I've been watching film with Coach [Steve Spurrier] Jr. a lot," he said, "and I came in yesterday and watched film for about two hours by myself."
Both Garcia and McKinley had the same analysis of the first bowl practice: rusty. The two weeks away from the field reenergized the team, they said, but it also led to some sloppiness during the first time out.
"We're kind of rusty just because we haven't been out here in a week or two," said McKinley. "Everybody's getting everything under them, and we're just ready to go out there and play. We've got tomorrow off so everybody went hard today."
"As you can tell, everybody had a pretty fun practice today. A couple people were rusty, myself included, but I'm just happy to be back out here and playing for a bowl," Garcia agreed. "I had a hard time throwing the ball today. I hadn't thrown the ball in three weeks. I'm still getting the rust off, but tomorrow I'll be fine."
Garcia was one of 10-15 players who spoke during the players-only meeting, and he said he could see positive results Saturday. He credited the meeting with the improved attitudes from players and coaches, as well as helping to put the late season swoon out of everyone's minds.
"I definitely think [the meeting helped]. Coaches were a lot more excited about it, they were a lot more encouraging, and it was a pretty fun practice," Garcia said. "Everybody's pretty much over the last two losses. Everybody's just ready to play, go out with a victory, and go into next year pretty motivated."
Even though he is a senior, McKinley is thinking about the Outback Bowl in terms of what it means to the program heading into the offseason. He talked so much about "next year" one almost wants to make sure he knows he will be playing on Sundays, not Saturdays next year.
"A win will take us into the next season, and a loss is something that you have to think about for the whole offseason," he said. "We need to win this game, it's must-win."
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