When the South Carolina Gamecocks take the field for their season opener at N.C. State Thursday night they will do so for the first time during the Spurrier Era without a receiver named “Rice” or “McKinley” in a Gamecock uniform.
While Sidney Rice is catching passes from Brett Favre in Minnesota and Kenny McKinley is learning the NFL game as a rookie in Denver, wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier, Jr., who developed both, is looking for a replacement in the absence of two of the school’s all-time greats.
Rice burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2005 catching 72 passes for a school record 1, 143 yards. When Rice departed early for the NFL following the 2006 season, it was McKinley who stepped up as the Gamecocks’ go-to receiver as a junior in 2007. From there McKinley only went on to re-write the USC record books hauling in a school record 207 passes for 2,781 yards.
Sound like a lot to live up to? It is. But Spurrier, Jr. says it’s fair to ask someone to step up next.
“Sure it is. I just wish I knew who it was,” Spurrier, Jr. said Monday night. “It’s fair to find a guy to replace Sidney Rice; I just haven’t found him yet. … And Kenny could do so much. He was a great player. He was very tough. He was very competitive. He was full of energy. He was very intelligent. And he had so many attributes. Yeah, it’s very fair to ask for replacements, I just don’t have one right now.”
What Spurrier, Jr. does have is a depth chart full of talent and what is probably the deepest unit of his time in Columbia. While depth is good, Spurrier, Jr. has made it very clear he wants someone to step up as the go-to receiver.
Who will that be? Senior Moe Brown, affectionately called “Coach Moe” or “Captain Moe” by some of his peers, is the unit’s unquestioned leader. And 6-4, 199-pound redshirt sophomore Jason Barnes was the odds-on favorite to be that guy entering fall camp. But it may be the once-unknown redshirt freshman Tori Gurley who has the best chance at being quarterback Stephen Garcia’s top receiver target.
“He has impressed me. I told him I was real impressed with him,” Spurrier Jr. said. “It was funny, because I told some of my freshman receivers this year that are redshirting, I said, ‘Guys, you know Tori, nobody talked to him a lot last year, nobody coached him a lot last year, but he got his opportunity and he’s ready to go, so you guys take a year off, work as hard as you can, and get ready to go.’ And that’s one thing Tori really did was he really worked hard last year. He’s gotten the opportunity and he’s really done well.”
Gurley spent time on the defense and offense during his redshirt season, but settled in at receiver and showed off his potential there in the spring. He grabbed his position coach’s attention then.
“He just needs to learn the offense,” Spurrier Jr. said at the time. And the 6-5, 227-pound Gurley has done just that.
After a somewhat slow start to fall camp, Gurley began his ascension up the depth chart in earnest with a five-catch, two-touchdown performance in an Aug. 11 closed scrimmage. Just six days later head coach Steve Spurrier said Gurley was officially a first-stringer at the ‘X’ position. Rather than just be happy with that promotion, Gurley has taken his play to a new level.
“Tori really has stepped up. He’s (gotten) real serious about it,” Brown said of his fellow receiver. “He’s always asking me questions [about] what to do in certain routes. Even when we come out of the huddle he’s, ‘Moe, talk to me, talk to me, let me know what’s going on.’ He really wants to be in that starting position. When he got it, he told me, ‘Moe, I’m in the position where I want to be, now how do I stay there?’ I just told him, ‘keep working hard and keep doing what you’re doing and you won’t have any problems.’”
“He’s one of the most determined, motivated guys I’ve really been around in a while,” Spurrier, Jr. says of Gurley. “I’ve talked to him a bunch, and he said, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to get my opportunity to go play.’ And he’s certainly done that.”
Gurley’s motivation may come from what he had to experience just to become a Gamecock. Gurley took a roundabout route to Columbia that featured a stay in Alabama when he took care of his grandmother, a stint at New Hampton Prep School, and a flagged SAT score that forced him to delay his arrival at South Carolina a few more months.
Gurley, who graduated from Rock Hill HS in 2006 and is now a mature 22-year-old, says he will always remember what it took to get where he is.
“It’s an opportunity that I grabbed by the horns,” he said following a recent practice. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t come out and work hard. The coaches work with me and stay on me, and it’s only going to make me better.”
“That makes a difference; that makes a difference,” Spurrier Jr. said of Gurley’s unorthodox route. “There’s a lot of kids that come out of high school highly recruited and they’re spoiled to the process. And Tori’s definitely a guy that has had to battle his way to get the opportunity to get here. He knows what he’s playing for.”
But Gurley may be just as talented as those four- and five-star receivers his coach speaks of. And with the work ethic to turn potential into production. Is Gurley the Gamecock’s next go to receiver? Spurrier, Jr. isn’t sure. Not yet, anyway.
“Time will tell,” he said of Gurley's talent in comparison to the top-rated prospects in the country. “But rankings and accolades and all that, that’s high school stuff. You get a different ranking when you get to this level. But he’s got the talent, and he’s got the physique, the physical skills needed to be a great receiver. So, I’m looking forward to seeing him play.”
He will get that chance, and Gurley will get his as well, this Thursday.