When Steve Spurrier walks into the USC weight room, he says he sees offensive linemen who look like NFL-sized linemen.
When he watches his team run out of the tunnel at Williams-Brice Stadium, he sees players who are as big and athletic as any in the SEC.
In short, Spurrier likes the look of the players surrounding him as he begins his fourth season with the Gamecocks. He should: Nearly all of them are players he and his staff brought to Columbia.
There are seven players remaining from the Lou Holtz era: twin linebackers Jordin and Dustin Lindsey, defensive tackle Marque Hall, defensive back Stoney Woodson, offensive tackles Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorensen and fullback Bryan Kingrey.
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The rest are players signed by Spurrier, who believes the pieces are in place to compete in the SEC East.
“If you’ve got a good-looking team, they’ve got to play harder and smarter,” Spurrier said. “If we can play with a higher effort level, play our assignments a lot, lot better than what we’ve been doing, it gives you a chance when one or two plays determine a game.”
With the Gamecocks set to begin practice Friday in preparation for their Aug. 28 opener against N.C. State, The State looks at 10 storylines for preseason camp.
Tommy Beecher’s hold on the quarterback job
When Spurrier announced that Beecher would be the starter at the start of preseason practice, many observers figured it was a motivational tool to get Chris Smiley fired up following his five-interception performance in the spring game. But Spurrier said he did not want uncertainty at the quarterback position over the summer and seems committed to giving Beecher every chance to be the man.
The knock on Beecher is his inexperience: The redshirt junior has attempted just 25 passes and has not started a game since high school. But Beecher is a smart player with natural leadership qualities who has more athleticism than he is given credit for.
Beecher was 31-6 as a starter at Concord (N.C.) High, where he led his team to a state championship in 2005. Beecher, whose uncles played for Spurrier at Duke, also has the distinction of being the first quarterback signed by Spurrier at USC.
But it comes down to production and the ability to deliver the ball on time in Spurrier’s offense. Beecher has four weeks to prove he can do it.
The Garcia factor
While Beecher and Smelley led the passing drills on campus this summer, redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia was on his own in Tampa serving his second suspension in a little more than a year at USC. There has been much speculation about Garcia returning to USC before Aug. 15, although university officials have given no indication they plan to alter the terms of the suspension.
That means the right-hander likely will not factor in the N.C. State game. And depending on what kind of shape Garcia is in when he reports, it might be several weeks before the right-hander is game-ready.
Garcia, who will be on a zero-tolerance policy should he return, has yet to take a snap in a game. Time will tell whether Garcia ever gets a chance to make headlines for his performance on the field.
The father-son, play-calling tandem
For the first time in his head-coaching career, Spurrier will delegate the offensive play-calling duties. Receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. will be the primary play-caller, although Spurrier Sr. will oversee the offense and insert a few of his “ball plays” when he sees fit.
The Gamecocks’ last father-son, play-calling experiment did not go well. But where Lou and Skip Holtz had polar-opposite offensive philosophies, the Spurriers are on the same page — a fact that should make the play-calling handoff a seamless transition.
“If (a play) goes bad, I did it. If it goes pretty good, he did it,” Spurrier said. “That will be the way it will go.”
Deciding on an offensive line
In each of Spurrier’s first three seasons, it took until midseason for USC to find the right combination up front. But with four starters returning and three other linemen with starting experience also back, that process should go more smoothly.
Meredith, a three-year starter at left tackle, must sit the first two games in return for the NCAA restoring a year of eligibility. But offensive line coach John Hunt should have the depth to compensate for Meredith’s absence.
“We’ve got full confidence in John Hunt. He’s as frustrated as any of us, just getting guys to play their assignment,” Spurrier said. “But most of the guys have played two or three years. We’ve just got to compete harder.”
The key position battle will be at center, where Garrett Anderson and Seaver Brown are the favorites to replace Web Brown.
Fixing the run defense
The Gamecocks’ inability to stop the run last season led to the departure of Tyrone Nix, who left for Mississippi when he was not assured of keeping his defensive coordinator’s title on Spurrier’s staff.
USC ranked last in the SEC and 110th among 119 teams nationally in run defense, allowing 209 yards a game. Spurrier is hoping the arrival of veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson from Mississippi State (with a brief stopover at Arkansas) and the return of middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley from knee surgery will help.
In his final game at Mississippi State, Johnson devised a scheme that held Central Florida’s Kevin Smith to 70 yards below his nation’s leading average.
Off the disabled list
Brinkley, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (foot) and defensive tackle Nathan Pepper (knee) are all coming back from season-ending injuries. All three are important cogs in Johnson’s 4-3 scheme.
As Marque Hall learned last year, it can be tough sledding returning from reconstructive knee surgery in a year, as Pepper will attempt to do. Brinkley and Munnerlyn say they are ready to go, with Munnerlyn under a nutritionist’s order to cut the grease from his diet.
The 275-pound Brinkley will not be asked to do much in coverage. If he returns to his run-stuffing form of 2006, Johnson will be pleased.
“I’m ready to rock and roll in 2008,” Brinkley said. “I can’t wait for the first game.”
Akeem the Dream
The Gamecocks have good depth in the secondary, but freshman cornerback Akeem Auguste forced his way into the rotation with a strong spring after his arrival from prep school. Auguste’s presence could help keep the mercurial Carlos Thomas focused.
A couple of other first-year players on defense could make an impact. Antonio Allen starts camp as the second-team “spur” —a safety/outside linebacker position — while defensive tackle Jarriel King has the size and physical tools to be a force if he qualifies academically.
Old faces, new places
It is a testament to Eric Norwood’s athletic ability that SEC coaches picked him as a second-team linebacker on the all-conference preseason team without seeing him play a down at the position.
Johnson flip-flopped Norwood, a first-team, all-SEC selection at defensive end, and Cliff Matthews to take advantage of both players’ talents. The 270-pound Norwood, who will line up at end in passing situations, and Brinkley form what might be the biggest linebacker tandem in the country.
Two other position changes to monitor: receiver Larry Freeman to linebacker and linebacker Melvin Ingram to fullback.
Specializing in special teams
After watching his team get three punts blocked in its last two games, Spurrier hired Ray Rychleski away from Maryland to coach the special teams — the first time Spurrier has used one coach to oversee all the special teams since Ron Zook did so at Florida in 1995.
Rychleski changed the way USC practices special teams in the spring and impressed Spurrier with his attention to detail.
Besides shoring up the punt protection, Rychleski’s other priority will be determining whether walk-on Spencer Lanning or freshman Ryan Doerr can wrest the punting job from senior Ryan Succop, who has handled the placekicking, punting and kickoff chores the past two seasons.
Finish the drill
The Gamecocks spoiled a 6-1 start and No. 6 national ranking last season with a five-game collapse that was the longest losing streak of Spurrier’s career. The way the schedule sets up, USC could well be in the same position heading into its tough closing stretch against LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and Clemson.
Receiver Kenny McKinley and other seniors are stressing the importance of closing the deal.
“We just tell each other we’ve got to finish,” McKinley said. “Finish the season. Finish games. We start off hot in games, then we don’t finish the games. That’s how the season was. So everything we do we’ve got to finish.”
First, they must start by establishing a winning attitude in camp.
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.