July 31, 2006

10 things we know heading into practice

With the start of fall camp less than a week away, there are lots of questions surrounding the Gamecocks that require answers. Some do not. Here are the Top 10 things we know right now about the USC football team:

1. STEVE SPURRIER IS STILL LIVID AT THE INDEPENDENCE BOWL MELTDOWN:

The fact that South Carolina blew a three-touchdown lead to Missouri in the Independence Bowl has never bothered Spurrier as much as the players' reaction afterwards. Rather than lamenting the loss, some Gamecock players merely shrugged it off.

Spurrier hardly let up this spring in his criticism of his club's performance in Shreveport. Nearly every stop on the Gamecock Club tour featured some type of nuclear blast.

Seven months later, Spurrier still hasn't totally left that bitter defeat behind, as his comments at SEC Media Days exemplified:

"We ended poorly last year," Spurrier said. "We had a big lead against Missouri in Shreveport and couldn't hold it. We tackled poorly, never forced a punt in the entire second half and and didn't get a turnover. So we got beat. The offense was bad in the second half also.' We're still a little irritated about that. I am anyway. Hopefully, our players are."


2. BLAKE MITCHELL WILL BE THE STARTING QUARTERBACK:

With Cade Thompson struggling to gain weight and Chris Smelley just a true freshmen, Mitchell will enter fall camp with as firm a grip on his job as any player on the team.

The good news is Mitchell has hardly acted this summer like a quarterback secure in his role. By all accounts, he has taken a greater leadership role in the conditioning workouts and spent hours studying film trying to get better.

"Blake has done a good job of coming up and watching tape on his own, from what I hear, trying to prepare" Spurrier said, well aware of the NCAA rule prohibiting coaches from strategizing with players in the summer months prior to the start of camp. "He has shown a commitment to do that. He works with the younger guys, trying to teach them. That's what you try to do, you try to teach your older guys to teach your younger guys the offense."

But, despite throwing for 2,370 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, Mitchell shouldn't get too comfortable because. . .


3. SPURRIER LOVES CHRIS SMELLEY:

Smelley is part of an outstanding freshmen class of quarterbacks entering the SEC this season. He threw for over 10,000 yards in five years as the starter at American Christian Academy in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Smelley possesses the physical size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), intelligence (30 on ACT and member of the National Honor Society) and skills (powerful throwing arm) to excel in Spurrier's system, as well as the matinee idol looks to quickly develop into a bonafide sensation with the fans. He also has a strong work ethic, as Spurrier pointed out at Media Days.

"Chris has shown a very strong commitment to try to learn our offense and be ready to play, if needed, this year," Spurrier said. "It's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out."


4. MIKE DAVIS WILL BE THE STARTING TAILBACK

With Cory Boyd returning from a one-year suspension, the prospect of a running back battle between Davis and Boyd emerged. But Spurrier has put all that talk to rest by pronouncing Davis the starter based on his stellar work this summer.

The fact that Spurrier selected Davis - only a sophomore - to represent USC at SEC Media Days shows how much the head coach appreciates the hard work put in by Davis, who recovered from a slow start to rush for a team-leading 666 yards last season.

"Mike has shown excellent commitment throughout the winter and summer conditioning program," Spurrier said. "Mike goes to everything. He goes to class and does very well in the classroom. He very seldom misses a workout, anything he's scheduled to do. He's our starting tailback."


5. SIDNEY RICE HASN'T LET HIS SUDDEN SUCCESS AFFECT HIM:

Last year at this time few knew who Sidney Rice was. Now, after a record-breaking freshman season (70 receptions for 1,143 yards and 13 touchdowns) at wide receiver, Rice has been named to just about every All-American team. His most recent honor came last week when he was named by the media attending Media Days in Birmingham to the All-SEC Offensive First-Team.

While some young players would let their instant celebrity status go to their head, the humble Rice has resisted the temptation. Instead, he has continued to excel both in the classroom and on the practice field and in the weight room since the conclusion of last season.

"Everybody knows about Sidney now. Wherever No. 4 goes there's going to be a bunch of guys hanging around him," Spurrier said. "Sidney has a wonderful attitude. He worked hard this off-season. He needs to prove he can do it year after year. But he knows that. He loves playing football, loves catching (the football), working out, all that. I don't think it has all gotten to him much."


6. JASPER BRINKLEY WILL START AT MIDDLE LINEBACKER:

A junior college transfer who enrolled at USC in January, Brinkley participated in spring practice and quickly claimed the starting job at middle linebacker with his superior size (6-foot-2, 250 pounds) and speed.

He also has a bit of a nasty streak, a good attribute for a middle linebacker in the SEC. Spurrier had to remind Brinkley not to tackle his teammates so hard this spring.

Spurrier was clearly impressed with what he saw from Brinkley this spring.

"(Brinkley) is a tough, good-looking inside linebacker. He looks like those linebackers that play at Georgia and Tennessee and those other places. He has a good chance to help us, " Spurrier said.


7. IMPROVING USC'S RUN DEFENSE IS SPURRIER'S BIGGEST CONCERN THIS SEASON:

The Gamecocks were horrendous against the run last season, finishing 11th in the SEC with 174.2 yards per game allowed. The only team worse was Kentucky (196.3 ypg).

The porous run defense contributed heavily to USC also finishing near the bottom of the conference rankings in average time of possession (27:51) per game and to the Gamecocks running the fewest plays on offense than any other SEC team.

"Our biggest concern is stopping the run," Spurrier said. "We were near the bottom in run defense. I think every team we played had the ball more plays than we did. Hopefully we can improve in that area."


8. SYVELLE NEWTON IS HEALTHY AND READY TO GO.

The last time we saw Syvelle Newton on the football field in a Gamecock uniform, he was tumbling into the end zone after a brilliant 10-yard touchdown run against Vanderbilt early in the fourth quarter.

Moments later, he was carried off the field with a torn Achilles tendon in his left foot. He missed the remainder of the season and all of spring practice.

After nine months of rehabilitation, it appears Newton will be completely healthy - or darn close to it - when fall camp opens Saturday night.

"Syvelle told me that he's 95 percent recovered," Spurrier said. "He has come back nicely from his surgery. Dr. Jeff Guy (USC team physician) did a marvelous job repairing his ruptured Achilles."

Spurrier plans to take advantage of Newton's versatility by playing him at multiple positions, including running back, wide receiver and shotgun quarterback. In other words, the vintage Newton we witnessed in the hard-fought victory over Vanderbilt should become a common sight this season.


9. SPURRIER HAS MODEST GOALS FOR THE GAMECOCKS IN 2006:

Spurrier has embraced the challenge of turning USC into a football power in the SEC. But after leading the Gamecocks to a 7-5 record last season, Spurrier has his eyes on a repeat performance with all of the lineup changes and new players USC will have on the field this season.

Three starters along the offensive line have to be replaced along with most of the defense. Cornerback Fred Bennett and defensive end Jordin Lindsey are the only starters returning on defense. All three linebackers who started the bowl game must be replaced, as well as Ko Simpson and Johnathan Joseph in the secondary. Both player departed early for the NFL Draft.

"Right now we're trying to win more than we lose," Spurrier said. "If we do that, it would be a pretty good year for us. We're trying to improve. We're not there yet. Hopefully someday I can come to (SEC Media Days) and say we have a team that is ready to challenge for the SEC (title), which I did probably all 12 years at Florida. We're not quite in that position right now. Hopefully after another one or two recruiting classes, and these guys growing up and becoming ball players, we'll be in that position."


10. SPURRIER AND DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR TYRONE NIX WILL GET ALONG JUST FINE:

Spurrier has always been known as a volatile coach when it comes to his relationship with defensive coordinators. The main job of any defensive coordinator under Spurrier is to get the ball back for the offense so Spurrier can call more ball plays.

Spurrier and former defensive coordinator John Thompson mixed like oil and water last season. After the USC defense struggled early in the season, Spurrier handed the play-calling duties to Nix, a former protégé of Thompson at Southern Miss. The defense showed improvement from that point until the second half meltdown against Missouri.

While Spurrier has vowed to become more involved with the defense this season, Nix has been steadily gaining the confidence of his boss.

"Tyrone is going to develop into an excellent defensive coordinator," Spurrier said. "We have a game plan about how we try to call down and distance. We know what we want to do and we're going to practice it all pre-season, which wasn't the case last year. We had way too much stuff last year. Guys were making too many mistakes. We're going to try to be fundamentally sound with very few mistakes."


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