Talent overcomes any weakness. So when describing the best coaches in college football, it usually starts with those who can convince the best talent to play for them.
While recruiting rankings have proven to be fallible, there’s not much doubt that the more five-star players a coach can get, the greater the chance they’ll play up to their reputation.
So what happened at South Carolina? A couple of five-stars and numerous four-stars made the Gamecocks a destination team, and their four-year record (42-11 from 2010-13) was the best in school history. The most talented players lived up to their billing, many others were key contributors and break after break went USC’s way.
The Gamecocks finished No. 4 in the country in January 2014. Thirty-one months later, they’re about to start a season where they’re picked last in their division with two players selected to the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team.
How the mighty have fallen, indeed.
“The mentality changed. I feel like that died off a little, but (Will) Muschamp came in and revived us,” senior Kelsey Griffin said at the team’s Media Day. “The mentality now is ‘Effort, Toughness, Discipline.’ ”
Obviously, not winning as often affects a team’s psyche. But when looking at why the wins weren’t as numerous, the biggest reason was talent.
Marcus Lattimores and Jadeveon Clowneys don’t come around every year, but the Gamecocks began missing or mis-evaluating the homegrown talent and the out-of-state players they caught the eyes of when they were winning. It came to a head when last year’s preseason depth chart featured walk-ons or former walk-ons in key positions.
Recruiting coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr. said it was because they had a great walk-on program. As the year went on, it was apparent from the steep talent dropoff that he was the wrong guy to take the spot vacated by Shane Beamer in spring 2011.
“Stuff changes over time. You’ve got to know how to adapt to it,” senior cornerback Rico McWilliams said. “Sometimes you’ve got to change the scheme up, sometimes you’ve got to recruit different. It all plays a part in it. We could have been way better than we were, but we could have been sorry the year we finished No. 4.”
It was a slow snowball rolling downhill. Beamer’s efforts landed a lot of key recruits that would carry USC through 2013. But the loss of defensive head Ellis Johnson, a hastily retooled defense in 2014 under Lorenzo Ward and other, smaller issues began to take their toll.
Spurrier Jr. was getting some solid recruits, but they weren’t the kind that served USC so well from 2010-13. Then his father began to waffle on whether to come back for the 2015 season; as he did, there was no slowing the bad momentum.
Steve Spurrier said he’d be at USC for two to three more years, and recruits who had pledged to him immediately began jumping ship. He quickly walked it back, but the one factor other coaches always used to recruit against the Gamecocks – Spurrier’s age – was now out there from the man himself.
He shouldered the blame after his retirement last year, saying it was his fault for not recruiting as well as in the past. It’s a young man’s game, he said, and the Gamecocks needed to get somebody with “fire and passion” to rebuild the team.
Muschamp has already started, collecting four four-star recruits in the last month alone. But that won’t help this year, when the Gamecocks will take the field with the remnants of old recruiting classes and whoever they could find as stopgap solutions.
Naturally, the veterans didn’t want to speak of their failures of last year, just the promise of the future.
“I’m not really blaming anybody, necessarily. It’s football, it’s a team sport. We’re all one unit and that’s what we preach here now,” Griffin said. “I don’t think everybody was bought in.”
Some pointed out that last year, it wasn’t so much talent as it was not getting that one big break.
“We lost five games by seven points or less. That’s one play, that’s what that is right there,” fifth-year senior Mason Zandi said. “That’s what we’ve stressed this season – finish everything. We finish drills, we finish meetings, we finish everything.”
There’s definitely a new attitude at USC, but will that translate into winning this year? Lost in the shuffle of “the Gamecocks have no talent” phrase is that much of it is unproven talent. They’re not destitute, they’re just unknown.
“We have as talented a group as anybody in the country. There is no lack of talent,” Zandi firmly said. “We have a different culture, and that’s what a head coach brings in.”
Spurrier brought in that culture in 2005, and it became the best decade USC has ever seen. It began to crumble at the end, but the foundation is still intact.
“I feel there are some changes being made and we’re going in a positive direction,” senior Jordan Diggs said. “Guys are buying in. What feels different now is we have guys holding each other accountable.”
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