The big coffee at 6:45 a.m. turned out to be a good decision.
First-year South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp invited six local media members to take an inside look at his team during Saturday’s spring game, and it was a long day.
Muschamp’s day started at 7 a.m. with a staff meeting. The media’s day started shortly thereafter with a meeting with the coach to go over ground rules, which were few. The access was unlimited and the only admonition was “use your best judgment.”
The spring game is kind of a Gameday Light – longer on chuckles and shorter on curses than a Saturday in the fall, but it provided good insight into the footsteps the team follows during a game day.
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The players’ day started with a team meal at 8 a.m., four hours before kickoff as is the standard. It was a comprehensive spread, featuring everything from beef tenderloin to green beans to pasta to French toast to an omelet station. From breakfast, it was 9 a.m. position meetings.
The Gamecocks quarterbacks gather around a small conference table with thick three-ring binders open in front of them. For next 15 minutes, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper speaks quickly and says things like “arcing the corner, reading the six and the nine” and his quarterbacks nod sagely as if any of this makes any sense at all.
“We know we like Houston right?” Roper says. “I like Gang Astro.”
Sure coach, whatever you say.
Roper emphasizes the basics – line up properly, snap the ball on time, “have the ball at the end of the play.” This also is the time when Roper tells his quarterbacks what part of the playbook will be off limits today for reasons ranging from risk of injury to potential opponent espionage. The defense also will play shorthanded, promising no edge pressure on the quarterbacks and no three-man front formations.
From the position meetings, the players move to larger rooms, one for offense and one for defense. The defense is under the instruction of 34-year-old defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson, who utilizes the call-and-response cadence of a good preacher.
Coach: “Defense Ready?”
Team: “Ball Out.”
Robinson has a handful of these, and he’s still teaching his players the proper response to each. The exhortations go on for a while until Robinson has the players stand to go over his sideline hand signals.
“Let’s do a great job of handling our business in these situations,” he tells the players about all of the situations he addresses.
The meeting wraps up with a hype video that includes scenes from “Remember the Titans” and clips of good defensive plays in the 14 spring practices but starts with a photograph of senior linebacker Jonathan Walton and his day-old son.
The next hour or so the players are on their own schedule to get dressed and taped and prepare themselves to play. They split evenly between the main locker room area and an adjacent lounge, where the lights are low and the music is loud.
For some, like sophomore quarterback Michael Scarnecchia, the prep means playing the popular FIFA soccer video game. For some, it’s scrolling their cell phones while SportsCenter plays on a large television. For two, improbably, it’s zoning out in front of big screen playing the sitcom “Two and a Half Men.”
Throughout the morning, the team is mostly under the eye of strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman and equipment manager Chris Matlock. While Muschamp is meeting with the parents of players and recruits and the assistant coaches are fretting over their final plans, Dillman and Matlock are making sure each player is dressed and stretched and headed to the field at the proper time.
“Get your mind right,” Dillman says often and loudly.
Dillman says everything loudly. There may be reserved strength coaches in the Ivy League, but in the SEC it’s a job for uber-extroverts. Despite being known for his fiery sideline demeanor, Muschamp is the picture of calm throughout Saturday. He never raises his voice with the team, although this may be another thing that is different in the spring than in the fall.
The last word the players here before they leave the locker room for the game is from Muschamp: “First impressions are huge. Let’s go make a hell of an impression.” As the players leave the locker room, they walk under a sign that reads “Leave No Doubt.”
Once the game begins, most of the heavy lifting has been done by the staff. Roper’s play calls come in quickly and he expects the same pace from his players, constantly urging them to line up faster, snap the ball faster, see the play develop faster, throw the ball faster, etc.
“What happened for you not the throw the dig?” he asked after quarterback Brandon McIlwain’s first series ended without a first down.
By halftime, the staff frankly is ready for the game to be over. While the players file into the locker room, the entire coaching staff meets in a separate room to discuss their thoughts. Most of Roper’s thoughts are just hoping no one gets hurt, and Muschamp walks into the room with the same thing on his mind.
“Let’s get Deebo (Samuels) and David (Williams) out,” Muschamp says.
That’s an indication of how the staff currently ranks its offensive playmakers. Tight end Hayden Hurst might have been on the sit list, too, but he didn’t get much work in the first half, and tight ends coach Pat Washington asks for Hayden to get a few second half throws if possible.
Hurst gets the first pass of the second half, and the rest of the day passes quickly as the game clock continues to run. Muschamp gives the final speech of the day.
“I appreciate the way you guys have embraced what we’re doing,” he tells the team in the locker room. “We’re going to have a good football team.”
From there, he moves onto business such as the schedule for the next few days and the fact that every player will have an exit meeting to go over a personalized summer play.
“No issues tonight,” he urges. “No issues this offseason.”
And, at 2:12 p.m., the offseason begins.