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USC football | The big boys are back

A 70-degree day. Not a cloud in the sky.

In other words, a perfect afternoon for football.

A day after the official end of winter, the unofficial start of spring — at least in football-crazed South Carolina — commenced Friday with the first of USC’s 15 spring practices.

The sunny skies brought out several hundred fans — the men in flip-flops, the women in tank tops — to the Gamecocks’ “Proving Grounds” on Bluff Road. They came to soak up the rays and watch Steve Spurrier’s team start anew following a 2007 season that ended with a five-game losing streak that cost the 6-6 Gamecocks a bowl berth.

As is his custom, Spurrier began his post-practice remarks with a comment about the weather before diving into football matters.

“We’re certainly not very happy the way we performed last year. Not just the end of the year, the whole year,” Spurrier said. “We won a bunch of ugly games, really. Certainly better than losing. But we need to play better and coach better. We’re going to try to do it.”

Evidence of change was everywhere, from the new routine of working out the special teams before the start of practice to two new coordinators bouncing around the two 100-yard fields.

First-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, a Winnsboro native who joined USC in January following a three-week layover at Arkansas, wore a wide-brimmed, canvas hat. Special teams guru Ray Rychleski, who arrived from Maryland during the off-season, had no cover on his shaved head.

It took Rychleski 10 minutes to make his voice heard. The native Pennsylvanian chastised a back-up punter for booting the ball in a drill that called for the punter to do nothing more than handle the snap.

While the quarterback competition among Chris Smelley, Tommy Beecher and Stephen Garcia remains the dominant spring story line, the return of a standout defensive player generated a first-day buzz.

Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, an all-Southeastern Conference pick in 2006, was back on the practice field for the first time in six months. Brinkley, a fifth-year senior who missed the final eight games in ’07 following knee surgery, wore a brace on his right knee for the two-hour workout.

Many older, established players view spring practice as drudgery. But Brinkley sounded like a kid at an Easter egg hunt.

“It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s something I’ve been looking for,” Brinkley said. “Like a little kid, you get anxious. Practice got rained out Wednesday. I couldn’t hardly sleep Tuesday night, just looking forward to stepping back on the field.”

Brinkley is one of several star players recovering from surgeries. Receiver Kenny McKinley (toe) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (foot) were held out Friday, and do not figure to do much all spring.

Likewise, Spurrier said he would probably pull Brinkley out of the contact drills once the Gamecocks don their full pads.

However, he might have a hard time persuading Brinkley to sit out.

“I love it,” Brinkley said of spring practice. “Any time we get an opportunity to get on the field, I want to do it.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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