Steve Spurrier happy to be back at home in the SEC
Posted: Thursday April 14, 2005 12:50PM; Updated: Friday April 15, 2005 4:15PM
New South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier directs QB Blake Mitchell during an April 13 practice.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For anyone awaiting the return of Steve Spurrier's scowl to SEC sidelines this fall, South Carolina running back Cory Boyd has some disappointing news from the Gamecocks' first three weeks of practice under the Ol' Ball Coach:
"He's much more laid back and calm from when I watched him on TV," said Boyd. "He hasn't shown too much throwing the visor around or anything. He smiles a lot more. Coach Spurrier has been very patient with us."
That's right, folks: "Steve Spurrier" and "patient" in the same sentence. And this is despite fact that the noted perfectionist hasfour South Carolina quarterbacks who have elicited more frustration through 12 spring practices than Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel and Rex Grossman did during Spurrier's 12 years at Florida. Spurrier's most experienced returning QB is sophomore Blake Mitchell, who completed nine of 22 passes last year, including three interceptions. The Gamecocks' first scrimmage two weekends ago produced the same amount of sacks -- 13 -- as completions (in 30 attempts).
But the Spurrier who greeted a visitor to his spacious office overlooking Williams-Brice Stadium this week seems far from frustrated. Upbeat, bordering on giddy, would be a more apt description, despite conducting his third interview that morning and umpteenth among a revolving door of curious reporters from around the country who have come calling this spring. "Let's do it," exclaimed the golf-shirt-and-khaki-clad Spurrier, who turns 60 next week but looks closer to 42.
Perhaps it's a newfound appreciation for his job after spending his first season out of coaching in more than a quarter-century last year. Perhaps it's the hearty dose of humility doled out during two miserable seasons with the Washington Redskins (7-9 in 2002, 5-11 in 2003) -- the first time in his head-coaching career he'd had anything less than overwhelming success ("Maybe I was a little arrogant. Maybe I ran my mouth more than I should," he told the Associated Press in a reflective moment last month.)
More than likely, though, the man who won nearly 82 percent of his games (122-27-1), six SEC championships and a national title at Florida has had to develop patience out of necessity because of his current situation. Forget for a moment such obstacles as South Carolina's century-old tradition of mediocrity, his unfamiliarity with the school and state, a recent spat of disciplinary problems among his players or the loss of last year's star receiver, Troy Williamson, to the NFL. At his core, Spurrier always will be a glorified offensive coordinator. Therefore his primary chore this spring has been to teach his time-tested Fun 'n' Gun attack to a group of players recruited and conditioned to predecessor Lou Holtz's conservative, run-oriented system. It's been, to put it nicely, a struggle.
Headed into a much anticipated -- and nationally televised -- spring game Saturday, there's no telling whether the Gamecocks will throw for 600 yards or 60.
"I don't know exactly what our offense is going to look like," said Spurrier. "It should be very similar to what we did at Florida. We hope to be a balanced team with the run and the pass. We hope to be able to run the ball straight at teams, and if not, try to throw it over their heads."
But the situation isn't all that different from the one he walked into at Florida in 1990. In his first year, the Gators went 9-2, finished first in the SEC and produced a near-3,000-yard passer in Matthews. Just a season earlier, they'd gone 7-5, and their leading passer, Kyle Morris, had thrown for all of 1,098 yards.
Last year's Gamecocks went 6-5 (the school withdrew itself from bowl consideration following an ugly brawl against Clemson), and their leading passer, Syvelle Newton, threw for 1,093 yards.
The most logical choice to become Spurrier's new version of Matthews is the 6-foot-3 Mitchell, a traditional drop-back passer from LaGrange, Ga., who was one of the nation's top-10 quarterback prospects in 2003 but spent most of his first two seasons stuck on the bench. For all the accolades, however, he has yet to demonstrate the kind of poise and leadership needed to play quarterback under Spurrier. Like Doug Johnson or Jesse Palmer once were, Mitchell has spent much of the spring moving around the depth chart. He started at No. 1 before slipping to No. 3, then returned to the top.
The other choices to play Spurrier's old position: redshirt freshman Antonio Heffner, who's the running QB Holtz coveted but Spurrier has rarely used in the past; walk-on junior Brett Nichols; or one of two incoming freshmen, Cade Thompson and Tommy Beecher. (Mike Rathe, a returning senior, also is practicing with the team while the NCAA determines whether he's eligible for a sixth year.) Mitchell and Heffner are at the head of the pack.
"Blake's got the talent," said Spurrier. "He can make the throws when he moves his feet right. [But] he steps the wrong way and throws some one-hoppers from time to time, too."
As for Heffner, Spurrier said, "He can run out of trouble, has excellent mobility. When the protection's a little suspect, like it is right now, he'd give us the best chance to win."