The last time South Carolina was coming off a 7-6 season and wondering what the future might hold, Marcus Lattimore loomed past the horizon and shined a comforting glow on spring practice in 2010.
There is no such reassuring presence this year. Sure, new defensive coordinator Jon Hoke has succeeded under Spurrier before. Yes, JUCO defensive end Marquavius Lewis looks like he’ll provide an immediate uptick in pass rush. And maybe Connor Mitch will translate all those high school passing yards into SEC production.
For an optimist, there’s always enough to build a case around, but there’s no sure thing at the moment. In 2009, South Carolina started the season 6-2 but slid to 7-6 after three straight losses to Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida and a bowl loss to Connecticut. A month after that discouraging Papajohns.com Bowl loss, Lattimore signed with the Gamecocks, and everything looked rosier.
Lattimore was a sure thing, and sure enough, he carried South Carolina to the 2010 SEC East title and catapulted a run that saw 42 victories in four seasons. That run bogged down this past season in a mire of bad defense and inopportune offensive mistakes. Now the Gamecocks are in rebuilding mode but without an obvious foundation on which to build.
Without the security blanket provided by a star, lots of things need to go right for South Carolina in 2015, and that starts when spring practice opens Tuesday. Among the questions the Gamecocks need answered:
• Can Hoke and co-defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward mesh their styles quickly and effectively enough to remake the defense?
• Can first-year defensive linemen (such as Lewis and Dexter Wideman, who already are on campus and will compete in spring practice) be true difference-makers in the SEC?
• Will whoever wins the quarterback battle (which likely won’t be decided until the fall) be up to the task?
• Can Brandon Wilds and David Williams provide an effective-enough SEC running game?
The list goes on, which is what makes this spring so daunting. It’s also what makes it so fascinating. The Gamecocks aren’t going through the motions for the next month as they did for much of the three consecutive 11-win seasons. This isn’t a spring in which we’ll see stars on the sideline while a bunch of guys who won’t play this fall bank experience for the future. This will be 15 auditions that will determine who is on the field this year and what kind of chance the Gamecocks have to start a new run.
Adding intrigue to the spring is how quiet the Gamecocks have been in the months leading up to it. When he announced the hiring of new defensive coordinator Jon Hoke on Feb. 9, Spurrier spoke only briefly. Since, he has declined a request by The State to interview Hoke. Earlier this week, the school’s strength coach declined to give out specific information about the team’s winter workouts.
Tuesday, South Carolina will open the gates to its first spring practice (as it plans to for the rest of them), and we’ll all get to see how it’s going firsthand. It ought to be worth a look.