Friday, April 11, 2008
Spurrier eager to right Gamecocks' ship after setbacks
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For Steve Spurrier, South Carolina's struggles didn't stop at the end of last season.
He couldn't keep his first pick for a new defensive coordinator, his incoming class lost some luster and some players seemed to spend more time in legal trouble than on the field.
How long the on- and off-the-field problems linger will determine whether Spurrier can bring the Gamecocks the Southeastern Conference success that football-crazed fans here desire.
Spurrier looked like he'd gotten the job done a year ago. South Carolina shot to a 6-1 start and No. 6 ranking. That created some buzz about Spurrier vying to add a BCS title to the national crown he won at Florida more than a decade earlier.
The Gamecocks' joyride quickly broke down, starting with a dreadful performance at home in a loss to underdog Vanderbilt in mid-October. The slide stretched all the way to Mark Buchholz's game-winning field goal for hated rival Clemson to end the season. Five straight defeats marked the longest streak of futility in Spurrier's stellar college career.
Spurrier said those losses "probably didn't help" convince recruits to come to South Carolina, a disappointment one year after analysts labeled the incoming class a top-five group.
Meanwhile, eight players were suspended since the spring semester began -- most after run-ins with police.
Among those was one of Spurrier's highest-profile recruits from 2007, freshman quarterback Stephen Garcia. He was barred from team activities until August following his third run-in with authorities in 15 months on campus.
Spurrier says the transgressions, which range from one player being accused of marijuana possession to Garcia being charged with underage drinking, are the most he's dealt with as a coach. He's spoken to his players about avoiding trouble and, with a week left in spring practice, said he's eager to put the focus back on the field.
"Maybe," Spurrier said, "we ought to start talking about the guys who're playing."
Early on, Spurrier will likely have to rely on his defense, which features all-SEC players in defensive backs Emanuel Cook and Captain Munnerlyn, and the return of star linebacker Jasper Brinkley, lost to a knee problem last September.
With a week left before South Carolina's spring game, Spurrier is hoping that lessons now being taught will be applied this fall. "We sort of feel like we're starting afresh here," he said.
But it's clear the team needs more work when it comes to competing in the SEC.
At one point last season, his offense went eight quarters without a touchdown, and the defense allowed Heisman Trophy defining performances two weeks in a row. It first gave up 321 yards rushing to Arkansas' Darren McFadden, then watched the eventual winner, Florida's Tim Tebow, collect seven TDs in the Gators' win.
And Garcia's lost time won't ease the Gamecocks' unsettled situation at quarterback.
The strong-armed, mobile passer from Tampa's Jefferson High had enrolled in January 2007 with plans to soak up Spurrier's complex system in spring ball. Garcia's two arrests last winter cost him that chance and he spent last season as a redshirt.
This spring, Garcia figured in the quarterback race along with sophmore-to-be Chris Smelley and rising junior Tommy Beecher. Instead, a third transgression in March got Garcia suspended from team activities until the summer by athletic director Eric Hyman.
Smelley, Garcia's friend, said the suspensions have been disappointing to a team that wanted to get past its poor play at the end of last year.
"It seems like us, there's been other schools too, you don't want to be in that category," Smelley said. "We talked about that the first day, trying to cut outside distractions, and try and focus as much as we can."
Coaching changes added a wrinkle, too.
Searching for a new defensive coordinator, Spurrier brought in linebackers coach Brian VanGorder from the Atlanta Falcons. He lasted only a month before returning to head the Falcons' defense. Spurrier eventually tapped Mississippi State's Ellis Johnson for the job. Spurrier also brought in Ray Rychleski from Maryland to coordinate special teams.
Spurrier didn't leave himself out of South Carolina's new plans. The coach, who'll turn 63 later this month, said he plans to cede some playcalling duties to his son, Steve Spurrier Jr., while getting other offensive assistants more involved in the game plan.
"We'll see how it goes," Spurrier said. "But it is time to delegate a little bit more than I've done in the past."