South Carolina’s first practice of the spring began with a pep talk from former Indiana and Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight and ended with a couple of emotional displays that Knight was known for when was on the sidelines.
Delayed two days because of cold weather, the Gamecocks were in shorts and helmets for the two-hour workout Thursday. But that did not stop a few players from fighting during the team portion at the close of practice.
Two months after falling to Iowa in the Outback Bowl, the Gamecocks are eager to begin anew.
“We were a little rusty. But everybody’s coming out here with a new swagger about us,” tight end Weslye Saunders said. “It’s a new experience, new coaches. Everybody’s pretty excited to get this spring started off right.”
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USC will have to try to maintain that intensity over spring break: The team is not scheduled to practice again until March. 17.
Knight, in town to provide color commentary for ESPN’s broadcast of the USC-Tennessee basketball game, hung around for nearly an hour after addressing the team. Though not close friends, Knight and Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier long have had a mutual respect.
“I’ve had a great admiration and respect for Steve as long as he’s coached,” Knight said. “I really enjoyed watching him when he started coaching at Florida and I saw him coach at Duke. He coaches the way coaches ought to coach.”
Spurrier said he admired Knight’s competitive spirit.
“He’s a competitor. He demands his players give all they’ve got,” Spurrier said. “Hopefully, we can get our guys in a very highly competitive level. I’m not sure we’ve quite done that, yet. So we’re in the process of hopefully doing it real soon.”
Quarterback Stephen Garcia will be instrumental in that process. Noting that Garcia was suspended for spring practice his first two years, Spurrier indicated having the right-hander available for all 15 practices would be a positive step.
“This will be his first spring if he doesn’t get in trouble (Thursday night),” Spurrier said. “He got one day in last year before he had his little episode, so hopefully he’ll make it after the break and be here ready to go.”
Garcia was the sharpest of the four quarterbacks Thursday. After redshirt freshman Reid McCollum and Aramis Hillary had poor throws on back-to-back plays during the 7-on-7 drill, Garcia stepped in and unleashed a perfect spiral to receiver Tori Gurley on a go route for a long gain.
While Saunders complimented Garcia on his reads and throws, Spurrier was a little more cautious with his praise.
“He looked OK,” Spurrier said. “The other guys got a long way to go. He’s got a long way to go.”
After sitting out most of last season with a knee injury, middle linebacker Rodney Paulk wasted no time making his presence known. On the first play during team period, Paulk, a Richland Northeast graduate, scrapped with offensive tackle and former Spring Valley standout Quintin Richardson.
“That wasn’t nothing too serious,” Paulk said. “We’ve known each other since high school.”
Offensive line coach Eric Wolford, one of six new assistants, said the real hitting would start soon enough.
“When you’re in pads you can’t really bang it around right now but here soon we will,” Wolford said. “We’ll do as much as we can, interaction with the defense and defensive line so we can have a lot more competitive-type situations so we can get these guys understanding pad level and playing with leverage.”
Post-practice comments from Spurrier, more