COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Steve Spurrier has waited a long time to
feel this good about South Carolina.
Spurrier, starting his seventh season, said this will be his strongest team yet with the Gamecocks, a versatile, speedy group that can score when they need to and stop others from answering back. And maybe just bring him what he's wanted since his return in November 2004 -- a Southeastern Conference championship.
"The team we've assembled, hopefully, is one of our best teams
ever," Spurrier said. "Time will tell."
Spurrier has tempered his praise of his team through the years,
knowing he hadn't yet gotten together the necessary pieces to really compete for the top. These days, though, he can't help his confidence.
The Gamecocks offense features a pair of frontline playmakers in
tailback Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Both helped
the Gamecocks win the SEC East and play in their first league
Lattimore ran through much of the league's top defenses, had
gained 93 yards and two scores in South Carolina's upset of No. 1
Alabama, and 212 yards and three scores in the division clinching
win at Florida, a place the Gamecocks had never won before.
Jeffery set single season records last year with 88 catches for
1,517 yards. Jeffery is so talented, Spurrier says, he tells quarterbacks to just throw the ball up somewhere high in Jefferry's
direction "and he's going to get it."
Quarterback could be a strength or a liability, depending on your view of starter Stephen Garcia. He's a second-team preseason all-SEC pick and the leader among returning league quarterbacks with 3,059 yards.
He has started the last 28 games and has shown toughness and skill. But he's been suspended five times by Spurrier, including two
Spurrier said Garcia's shown better and commitment and leadership since his latest flare-up in April. If he's as productive as last season, Garcia could leave as South Carolina's all-time leader in passing yardage.
"I don't really think about it unless somebody brings it up," he said.
"The team in generally is thinking about what we all can do, not
individuals. I think that's what makes this team different than in the past."
Another difference is the inclusion of last year's top high-school prospect in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who picked
the Gamecocks over Alabama and Clemson last Valentine's Day.
Clowney is considered a once-a-decade talent, a 6-foot-6 dynamo who combines speed and strength.
"He can certainly run around all the (offensive) ends we have here," Spurrier said.
More than 2,000 or so fans turned out for South Carolina's first practice last week, oohing over just about anything Clowney did.
"I'd never seen that many people for a practice," Clowney said in
Clowney may gain headlines but he's only a part of what should
be a solid, run-stopping line. Junior defensive end Devin Taylor
had 7 1/2 sacks last season while tackle Travian Robertson will
benefit from the attention given Clowney gets on the end.
If South Carolina had a weakness, it was against the pass. The
Gamecocks were 10th in the SEC, giving up nearly 242 yards a game
through the air. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore said the defensive staff have simplified the schemes to tighten up in the secondary.
Gilmore said the defensive backs have also put in the work to improve and not get beaten over the top so often this season.
"We don't want that to happen again," he said.
The most difficult thing for South Carolina might be handling the lofty expectations. Spurrier has talked to them about playing within themselves, yet he says the team has worked hard the past few years to bring in players who welcome the attention and strive to achieve great things.
Gilmore, Jeffery, Lattimore and Clowney were all prep standouts in South Carolina whose goals were to be the best, Spurrier said. Now, it's up to them to carry that attitude to the Gamecocks.
"We've just got to listen to coach and stay humble about it," Jeffery said. "Anybody can be picked to win. I'm sure no one picked Auburn last year. It's not where you start, it's where you finish."