A few hundred fans – and one notable former coach – watched South Carolina’s first open practice of the Will Muschamp era Tuesday afternoon. What they saw is a coaching staff still trying to figure out what they are working with.
Muschamp has taken the Gamecocks reins from Steve Spurrier, who watched about half of Tuesday’s practice as a new coaching staff tries to bring the team back from a 3-9 season. Plenty of former players, including Pharoh Cooper, were among the spectators Tuesday as well.
“I think (the crowd) is great,” Muschamp said. “We have the most loyal fan base in the country. I think it’s great to have them involved.”
Thursday’s practice also is open to the public. After that, Muschamp will close the doors again until the April 9 spring game. The fans who came out Tuesday quickly noticed two main differences between these practices and the ones of the Spurrier era – the speed and the volume.
The Gamecocks get from place to place faster than they did last season and the commands of the coaches can be heard from a much greater distance. Asked if the new staff was loud, senior defensive back Chaz Elder replied, “Very.”
Elder was working with the first team at times Tuesday, which is a change of pace for him, and it was far from the only change in the look of the lineup. Chris Lammons was back at cornerback after a brief switch to safety. That bumped Rashad Fenton from cornerback to nickel back.
Linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, one of the bright spots of the spring, was playing the Buck end position at times. (“We have to get more speed on the field. We are not a very fast twitch defense,” Muschamp said. “He’s got pass rush ability so we have to get him in some situations where he can rush.”)
Daniel Fennell, an afterthought among the linebackers entering the spring, was with the first team as a Buck much of the practice. (“Daniel has done some nice things. He has come in and given us a little twitch in the rush,” Muschamp said. We are starving to have some more pass rush, to win on the edge.”)
Jamari Smith, the most well-traveled player on the field, was playing wide receiver. In the previous two seasons, Smith has been a defensive back, running back and wide receiver, and he looked like he’d settled back in at running back early this spring, but South Carolina’s coaches have realized they’ve got to have some help on the perimeter so Smith is working with the wide receivers at the moment. (“He’ll be tough for a defense to count exactly what he is so moving forward, he’s going to be kind of both,” Muschamp said.)
The offensive line had a decidedly different look with tackle D.J. Park and guard Donnell Stanley starting on the right side for most of the day, and Cory Helms playing center in place of the injury Alan Knott (wrist).
“This is spring, it’s time to experiment,” Muschamp said. “Competition is my best friend because it’s a motivator. They understand they have to come out here every day.”
Nowhere is the competition more focused than at quarterback. Muschamp reiterated Tuesday that senior Perry Orth and freshman Brandon McIlwain had “distanced” themselves from the rest of the quarterbacks and with Orth on the shelf for two months due to a broken collarbone, McIlwain was leading the first-team offense the entire day in his ninth collegiate practice.
“He’s made a lot of strides. Obviously he has a lot of ability,” Muschamp said. “I’ve been very pleased with his progress.”
Still, he’s a true freshman making a tough transition and even the simplest things aren’t simple. At one point Tuesday, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper paused a drill to forcefully tell McIlwain to “speak up” on his pre-snap calls. At other times, McIlwain threw bad interceptions into spots that probably stayed open a lot longer in high school than they do at this level.
“We don’t have a clear cut No. 1 quarterback,” said Muschamp. “We have multiple guys we’re trying to rep and part of the evaluation for us is off rhythm plays and their legs.”
Connor Mitch will get some first-team repetitions before spring practice is complete, and Lorenzo Nunez will get a chance to compete whenever he comes back from a knee sprain, which could be as early next week or could be in the summer.
“In a perfect world, you’d love for somebody to step forward,” Muschamp said, “but we have made some progress at the position.”
There’s been progress across the board, he said.
“Practice one through eight, I think we’ve improved tremendously,” he said. “We still have miles to travel, but we’ve done some good things.”
One fan watching Tuesday was overheard saying he was happy to be getting a look at the 2016 team if only to “leave 2015 behind for good.” Muschamp and his staff are looking at every possible option to do just that.