When push came to shove, Steve Spurrier said, wide receiver Ace Sanders had to make the decision that was best for him and his family.
In this case, Sanders felt declaring for the NFL Draft earlier this week rather than returning for his senior season was his best option.
By doing so, Spurrier acknowledged, Sanders is hoping to capitalize on an Outback Bowl MVP performance in which he caught nine passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns, and zigzagged his way through Michigan en route to a 63-yard punt return for another score.
Spurrier insisted USC wasn’t surprised by Sanders’ decision to play for his trade on Sundays, adding that the USC coaching staff fully supported the move.
“Not too blindsided,” Spurrier said on Saturday following a halftime ceremony at USC’s basketball game. “Ace had an exceptional game in the Outback Bowl. He just felt it was time and he was as hot as he’s going to be. Who knows? But we’re all for Ace and we wish him the best.
“We wish Ace the best. He had a big game. He thought it was time to capitalize. I’ve had players do that before. When they’ve had that huge bowl game, it might be time to go. We understand. No problem.”
When asked if Sanders has initially told the coaching staff he was staying, Spurrier replied, “It doesn’t matter. He’s gone. We’re talking about next year’s guys.”
Sanders’s departure means greater opportunities for younger receivers like Shaq Roland, K.J. Brent, Kwinton Smith and Shamier Jeffery.
“All these guys haven’t played much,” Spurrier said. “Shamier Jeffery is going to get his chance. That’s just more balls those guys are going to get in the spring. We’ll have plenty of receivers ready to go.”
With the loss of Sanders, D.L. Moore and DeAngelo Smith, Spurrier hopes leadership at the wide receiver spot will emerge during the summer.
Spurrier confirmed that Connor Shaw won’t participate in spring practice after undergoing surgery to fix his sprained foot shortly after the Outback Bowl, describing his return as a “four- to six-month deal.”
“It’s coming right around,” Spurrier said. “He had the surgery. It’s very similar to what D.J. Swearinger had last year. It takes time. He’ll be fine by middle of the summer.”
Spurrier’s enthusiasm for the quarterback duo of Shaw and Dylan Thompson was obvious during the halftime ceremony.
“We’ve got the best tandem of quarterbacks, the best two quarterbacks on the same team, in college football with Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson,” Spurrier told the appreciate crowd at halftime.
Does Spurrier envision playing both quarterbacks in 2013 in the wake of the success in the Outback Bowl, or would he prefer that only one emerge?
“We’ll have to see how it plays out,” Spurrier said. “Obviously, Dylan has proven he needs to play. And so has Connor. We have two good ones. We’ll see how it works out.”
Because of Shaw’s injury, Spurrier said, Thompson, rising redshirt freshman Brendan Nosovitch and newcomer Connor Mitch should each benefit from plenty of snaps during spring practice.
Mitch graduated from high school in December and enrolled at USC at the beginning of the spring semester earlier this week.
“Connor Mitch is a player we think is going to be very good,” Spurrier said. “He threw for a lot of yards in high school. He’ll probably be redshirted, but he wanted to come early and start learning. So, he’s here. He, Brendan Nosovitch and Dylan will probably get all the snaps at quarterback.”
USC hosted a large number of 2013 prospects at Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt. In fact, 2014 fullback/linebacker Joe Blue from Dillon committed to the Gamecocks during the contest, joining former high-school teammates D.J. Park (already enrolled at USC) and Bryce King in Columbia. Park and King are both offensive linemen.
“We have a lot of our recruits and committed guys in this week, so hopefully they will see how important football is here at South Carolina,” Spurrier said. “And hopefully, they can maybe do a little bit better than these guys have done thus far.”
• Spurrier said the spring game is scheduled for April 13.
• As expected, rising junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney received the loudest ovation when the players were introduced by Spurrier at the end of the halftime ceremony. Spurrier rejected the notion of utilizing Clowney on offense, saying, “He’s a defensive player. He wants to play defense. We’ll move him around on defense like we did most of the year. His plan will be very similar to this year.”
• Spurrier confirmed that former USC quarterback/receiver Syvelle Newton will serve as a volunteer assistant coach during spring practice. “He’ll just be out there helping out,” Spurrier said. “He’s just a volunteer.”
• Spurrier has led USC to a lot of “firsts” in his eight years as coach, but he began his halftime speech to the crowd by saying, “We had another wonderful season, but not as good as we had hoped. We still have not won a SEC championship. We hope in the very near future that’s going to happen.”
• Although he couldn’t identify the recruits by name because of NCAA rules, Spurrier said, “We have several future Gamecocks in the crowd tonight.”
• Spurrier thanked the crowd for helping USC post the first undefeated record (7-0) at home since 1987. USC is 25-3 at Williams-Brice in the last four seasons.
• Spurrier said the 2012 season was “a little bit better” than 2011, even though the Gamecocks had the identical overall record (11-2) and conference record (6-2).
• The Outback Bowl trophy and Hardee’s trophy were on display at mid-court when Spurrier spoke and were hoisted in the air by the players at the conclusion of the ceremony.
• Spurrier referred to rival Clemson as “that team from the Upstate.” USC will try for a fifth straight win over the Tigers for the first time in school history in 2013.
• Spurrier said that Bruce Ellington had a “sensational” season with 40 receptions for 600 yards and seven touchdowns. He was scheduled to participate in the halftime ceremony, but stayed in the locker room to regroup with the rest of the basketball team following a miserable first half shooting the basketball (5-for-29, 17.2 percent).
• Spurrier described long snapper Walker Inabinet as “the best snapper in college football.” Spurrier noted that USC hasn’t had a bad snap on special teams in two years.