COLUMBIA — South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has his sights set on bigger things in the Southeastern Conference, even if some Gamecock fans still aren’t sure what to expect.
Spurrier recalled walking by the athletic department’s academic building a couple of weeks back when someone asked, “Hey coach, are we going to have a winning record?”
A winning record, Spurrier thought, “our goals have gone a little past a winning record.”
Now, Spurrier’s locked on to a Southeastern Conference title, something he last achieved in 2000 when coaching at Florida.
The Gamecocks went 11-2 last year, setting the mark for most wins in season history. The looked on track for a second straight SEC Eastern Division title after an early 45-42 win at Georgia, but the Bulldogs didn’t lose the rest of the way and edged out the Gamecocks for the trip to the Georgia Dome.
Spurrier, though, was proud of what his team achieved, most notably defeating South Carolina’s five SEC divisional rivals for the first time in program history. Spurrier used the milestone to float a scheduling change where he tried to persuade the SEC to count just division games toward winning the division and reaching the SEC championship game — a proposal that got no traction among league leaders.
So Spurrier, whose “Fun-n-Gun” offense changed college football at Florida in the 1990s, will again rely on the “ground-and-pound” formula that’s led the Gamecocks to a 20-7 mark the past two seasons.
The ground attack will be led by junior tailback Marcus Lattimore, who says he’s fully recovered from knee-ligament surgery that cost him the team’s final six games. Lattimore was leading the SEC in rushing for much of last year and ran for 818 yards before his injury at Mississippi State.
“Was I scared? Yeah, I knew it was bad,” Lattimore said.
But Lattimore did what doctors and trainers told him, not pushing as hard as he wanted to so his recovery would go well. So far, so good. Lattimore has looked strong at South Carolina’s practices and appears capable of handling the heavy load Spurrier plans to give him this fall.
Lattimore rushed 249 times for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman. He was well on his way to surpassing all those marks before he got hurt.
“Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to be pitching it around the ball park when you’ve got somebody like Marcus,” Spurrier said.
Spurrier is optimistic about his passing game despite the loss of game-breaking receiver and Chicago Bears’ second-round draft pick Alshon Jeffery. The receivers may collectively be the fastest of Spurrier’s eight seasons and are led by Ace Sanders. The Gamecocks landed the state’s Mr. Football, Shaq Roland of Lexington, a 6-foot-1 wideout expected to take up some of the slack of Jeffery’s early departure.
Another bright spot on offense could be quarterback Connor Shaw, entering his first full season as starter. Shaw was thrown into a trouble situation last fall after Stephen Garcia was kicked off the team for a failed drug test. Shaw kept things simple, handing off to his backs or taking flight on his own and finished as the team’s second-leading rusher.
But Spurrier’s gushed about Shaw’s on-target passing this summer. The coach sounds just as happy that Shaw is a work-first, no-trouble player, something the coach didn’t have with Garcia, suspended five times before his dismissal last October.
“Connor is sort of the quarterback every coach would like to have in the fact that he is dedicated in being the best he can,” Spurrier said. “There are no off-the-field issues. His dad is a head high school coach so he has been brought up to play the game the right way.”
The pound of South Carolina’s “ground-and-pound” attach should come from its defense, which finished third in the country — and in the SEC — behind LSU and Alabama. The group lost a pair of first-round draft picks in cornerback Stephon Gilmore to Buffalo and defensive lineman Melvin Ingram to San Diego. It also lost its leader in Ellis Johnson, who left last December to take the head coaching job at Southern Mississippi.
Spurrier promoted from within, elevating Lorenzo Ward to running that side of the ball after three seasons directing Gamecock defensive backs. Johnson leaned heavily on Ward in formatting the defensive scheme. Ward says things will largely remain the same, but expect more ferocity in creating turnovers.
The defensive line will be led by ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. The two combined for 14 sacks last season and Ward plans to turn them loose again. Clowney, the country’s top college prospect two seasons ago, figures to play some linebacker too this fall, something he can’t wait to do.
“I get to stand up and run downhill,” the Clowney said. “You can hit somebody harder than coming off the d-line.”
The schedule could again keep the Gamecocks from Atlanta. South Carolina’s SEC West opponents are top-10 schools LSU and Arkansas while Georgia’s are Ole Miss and Auburn.
“You think I make the schedule,” Spurrier cracked at SEC media days last month. “If I made the schedule, Georgia would be playing LSU and we’d be playing Ole Miss.”
Spurrier believes he’s improved the program since arriving for the 2005 and doesn’t see why the Gamecocks can’t take the next step this fall.
“We’ve sort of built it up. We’ve not had a loser here,” Spurrier said. “We got better players and maybe even a little bit better coaches, too.”