ATHENS – When Steve Spurrier took over at South Carolina three years ago, he very publicly talked…
Spurrier Expects La. Lafayette's Best Shot
Some things have changed since then. Spurrier is now the coach at South Carolina, not Florida; the other school changed its name in 1999 from SW Louisiana to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Spurrier's starting quarterback this year won't even suit up for the first game of the season. But there is one thing that hasn't changed. Steve Spurrier is still considered to be one of the very best coaches in the land, and he likes what he sees in his 2007 team. Few, if any, expect him to have his team challenging to repeat what his 1996 team accomplished, but fans across the Palmetto state share their coach's enthusiasm, and are as optimistic about this season as perhaps the fan base has ever been about any USC team.
In a season where the head coach has been the only coach in the SEC to openly proclaim that his team's goal is to compete for the SEC championship, he addressed his team's readiness for the season opener: "Hopefully we can play our best, and we really should. We've had a lot of practices, scrimmages, snaps and repetitions. We've made our share of errors. Hopefully we can learn from the mistakes, and really play a fairly close to mistake-free game."
"We're still a team that should be better in the future. But we'll worry about the future when it gets here," Spurrier said. "This year's team is what we'll try to make the most of. We'll try to win every game and not worry so much about building for the future. We're not going to play a young guy just to build for the future. We're playing our best players and will have the very best season we can have this year."
Spurrier's team in '96 beat Louisiana-Lafayette by 34 points, 55-21, and this year the Gamecocks are favored by 29 points. "We don't pay any attention to whatever the point spread is," the coach said. "We certainly don't talk about it. The team that plays the best is usually the one that wins." He looked back at the previous meeting, saying, "I remember the first game of ‘96; we opened with them down at 'The Swamp.' They moved the ball quite well on us and gave us fits early. Fortunately we got the best of them as the game progressed."
"We're looking forward to Saturday night. We're expecting their best shot. They've got a coach, Rickey Bustle, that's coached there a while. He's a Clemson graduate, so it's a huge game for their coaches, coaching staff, players, and I'm sure they'll be prepared to play their very best. It will be a good challenge, and hopefully we can play our best."
"They're a very good running team. It's kind of like the Wofford game (last season). We weren't assignment clear in the Wofford game, and we were very fortunate to beat Wofford. (Louisiana-Lafayette uses) a different scheme; they'll be in the shotgun running the fake to the back, keep it and run some option stuff all over the place. Our defensive coaches had to really adjust from playing against our offense to the one we'll see Saturday night. We have to get them off the field. We can't let them stay out there and take the time off the clock. That's what running teams do."
USC's freshmen class is arguably its best recruiting class ever, and the head ball coach indicated that almost all of the incoming class will play, with the exception of quarterback Stephen Garcia and offensive linemen Quintin Richardson and Kyle Nunn. Receiver Joseph Hills who sat out much of the fall camp due to injury, may also be a redshirt candidate. In fact, of the players on the two-deep depth chart released Tuesday, eleven true or redshirt freshmen are on the two deep, and that number does not include receivers, where as many as four more freshmen will likely play.
One player many expected to redshirt this year is running back Brian Maddox. Maddox has made the most of his opportunities during fall camp, showing the staff what he is capable of, and working hard to learn the playbook. It paid off. "We're going to play Brian Maddox," Spurrier said. "We feel like he's ready to play. Usually one of the two running backs gets a sprained ankle or shoulder, or something happens during the course of the year. Brian's our third back right now, and he could be our second back or our first back as we go through the season."
Steve Spurrier believes that true freshman running back Brian Maddox is too good to keep off the field this year.
Much has been made in the media outside South Carolina that USC had 10 returning starters on defense, but most of the young players listed on the two-deep are also on defense. "Defensively, we're looking forward to watching a lot of new players play there also," the coach said. "Ladi Ajiboye is on the defensive line, Marque Hall is back from injury last year, and we have a couple of freshman there, Travian Robertson and Cliff Matthews. We've got a lot of freshman ready to play. Ladi is a powerful young man in there that can make plays. Both he and Clifton (Geathers) are actually in their second year after high school, so they're actually like redshirt freshmen."
"The secondary is fairly set. There are a lot of seasoned players with experience in our secondary. We think we're going to be better in our defense and hopefully we're going to prove it. We're looking forward to doing that Saturday night."
Injuries played a key role in Spurrier's first two years at Carolina, and he is happy with the overall health of his team. "Our team is very healthy for this time of year. Jasper Brinkley was running around fairly well last night. He's scheduled to play. Freshman receiver Joe Hills is a little bit gimpy but he's not expected to play a whole lot anyway. Overall we're a very healthy team going into the game against Louisiana-Lafayette."
The weakest part of Spurrier's offense his first two seasons was clearly a patchwork offensive line. The coach was openly critical of the line's play after a number of practices again this fall, but when he evaluated the O-line's status heading into the opener, he sounded happy. "We're farther along in the offensive line than we've been any time since we've been here. We think they know what to do and hopefully they can execute their assignments well. We'll probably play at least nine or ten players in the offensive line. We need to let them all play in the real game and then go from there and see who the best players are. There'll be several offensive lineman going in and out just like receivers and running backs."
Spurrier indicated that a starting five for the rest of the season would probably not be determined until after he and his staff evaluated the play of the line against ULL. Behind center, Carolina will be without their expected starting quarterback, senior Blake Mitchell, who has to serve a one-game suspension for missing too many classes this summer. Spurrier dismissed his absence as having any major impact on the team. "It's not really all that difficult. These guys have been rotating the whole pre-season. Mitchell, Smelley, and Beecher. They're about the same. No one has outplayed the others predominantly. We open it up for competition every year around here. Just because you're starting one year doesn't mean you'll be starting the next year. These guys are really well prepared, and I expect them to play well. I believe they will."
"It's going to be interesting watching the two quarterbacks play. Chris Smelley will start, and Tommy Beecher will get in the first quarter or second quarter. He's going to be in early. We're going to play both of them and see how they do. If one of them is playing a little bit better than the other, he may continue on. They're both going to get their opportunity Saturday night. Also, we've got a lot of freshmen receivers we'll play."
Spurrier, as always, showed his appreciation for the Gamecock faithful: "Looking forward to a big crowd. We've sold just about all of the tickets. Hopefully our people will be here screaming and yelling and giving us that little extra edge that we have here at home as far as crowd noise is concerned. One of the things we've talked about as a team is certainly playing better at home. We lost some close ones here last year. We played decently, but we did not get to win in some close games where we had a chance here last year. We're going to try to step it up here at home and try to make this 'Our House.' As everyone knows, we're with Under Armour now. We have an awning that says 'Protect This House,' so we're going to try to do that here Saturday night."
To discuss this article, visit The Cockpit, our free forum, or The Golden Spur, our premium forum.