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July 27, 2010The national attendees at SEC Media Days either stifled giggles, shook their heads in amazement or sadly watched what, in their eyes, a legend had become. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier stood at the podium and the first topic he addressed for his football team was -- its graduation rate.
No one-line barbs at the opponents. No cracked jokes about how he expected to see all of them in Atlanta in December. No cocky boasts about how it all came down to that Florida State game at the end of the year.
"I don't think I've won enough games lately to have any outlandish quotes," Spurrier explained. "If you win a bunch of games, it's pretty easy to give all the answers up here."
Some later wrote about how "it had come to this" or how the USC job had sullied Spurrier's reputation. Fullback Patrick DiMarco, one of the team's three player representatives, wasn't pleased.
"They haven't been at practice," he pointed out. "We've been showing some signs of, 'Wow, our offense might be there this year.' This might be the year that coach Spurrier's offense is back with humongous numbers. For the first time in my four years, we're putting things together that we haven't this early in the season."
DiMarco wasn't offended at the notion of USC's offense not being up to par with Spurrier's offenses at Florida. Anybody can compare numbers and see that.
But he bristled at everybody saying the Gamecocks would never be that kind of offensive team. He repeated that everybody in the room who wasn't part of the USC beat crew hadn't seen them in practice and wasn't aware of what could be brewing.
"If anything, (Spurrier) feels like this team this year has more talent and more capability so he wants more out of us," DiMarco said. "He's pushing us to be more competitive."
DiMarco didn't want to give away the playbook, but he said there would be noticeable differences in the Gamecocks' approach this year. A mass return of offensive skill players and a thin offensive line has necessitated the changes.
And it should be very fun to watch.
"We're kind of working a new scheme on offense where it's not going to be as brutal on the offensive line to have to drive somebody 5 or 6 yards," DiMarco said. "It's going to be more getting in position, getting your hands in there, more position blocking and not drive blocking."
The line's struggles have continued during the offseason as two more men (Quintin Richardson and Nick Allison) have disappeared from the roster. Richardson is likely out for the season after tearing a chest tendon and Allison quit the team a week ago, citing a lost desire for football.
That left 14 available linemen, eight of which have never played a varsity snap. The Gamecocks have got great skill behind it, but the scheme that has allowed three straight years of SEC-last rushing totals and a whopping 37 sacks in 2009 had to change.
DiMarco said that first, the line would be more mobile, which allows the Gamecocks' sizzling speed at tailback and receiver to be more flexible in their routes. That could be quick relief for USC fans, which saw a dynamic rushing attack produce a 34-17 win over rival Clemson but was an afterthought during a listless loss at the Papajohns.com Bowl.
"We have so many running backs this year, whatever we need, we have a chance to do it," DiMarco said. "We have a tough downhill runner in (Brian Maddox), we have some slash and cut guys in Jarvis (Giles) and Kenny (Miles), and Marcus (Lattimore) can fit in both those categories. Whatever we want to do, we should be able to do this year as long as our offensive line gives us a chance to do it."
The line was adjusting to new coach Shawn Elliott during spring practice but had already begun to work on some of the new techniques. "We haven't taken a whole lot of snaps under center," center T.J. Johnson said, "We do a lot of shotgun stuff," and that should only help the passing game.
"You strive to have a perfect practice, but we came out here and we knew the plays," tackle Hutch Eckerson said. "The plays are fairly simple; it's just knowing where you need to be at the right time."
According to DiMarco, that's more shifting and zone blocking, which should benefit much more than standing an opponent up for four to five seconds while quarterback Stephen Garcia looks for the long ball. With receivers Alshon Jeffery and Tori Gurley able to cut across midfield and catch in traffic besides being constant threats on the sideline pass, a constantly moving offense would be hard to defend.
All that has to happen is for the Gamecocks to put it together. The line will be thin -- there is no way to change that. But if USC can put the offense into the skill positions' hands, perhaps there won't be so much pressure on the line.
"I think the offensive line, it's all about a want-to personality," DiMarco said. "You've got to want to do things, you've got to want to knock the guy across the ball, you've got to want to knock him for a little whirlwind.
"When we're running pass skels, we're used to the defense just dominating, because the defense can drop however many guys into coverage. We're looking fine. We'll be able to put us in position to win instead of having to fight for the win."
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