Gamecocks finally have chance to win SEC East -- if they can change
In 2010, East will be as open as it has been since league split into divisions
Spurrier appears ready to adapt offense, embrace no-huddle and zone play
Quarterback competition should motivate likely starter Stephen Garcia
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The first sign that something had changed at South Carolina came during last Saturday's scrimmage, when the entire offense stayed at the line of scrimmage after a play to wait for the next play to come in from the sideline. It had to be a two-minute drill. Steve Spurrier wouldn't just run no-huddle in the middle of a game, would he?
The second sign came when tailback Jarvis Giles took a handoff, scanned one side of the field for a hole, bounced outside and blazed down the field for a huge gain. The play looked less like something Fred Taylor might have run and more like something Steve Slaton might have run. Spurrier wouldn't ditch his draw-oriented run game for a zone scheme, would he?
With the SEC East as open as it has been since the league split into divisions in 1992, Spurrier knows the Gamecocks finally have a real chance to break the Florida-Georgia-Tennessee triumvirate that has won every East title. To pull off that feat -- which might get him elected governor in the Palmetto State -- he knows he'll have to change. Using the scheme that helped Spurrier win the first five East titles as Florida's coach, South Carolina finished 11th in the SEC in scoring offense. The Gamecocks finished second in the league in passing (232.4 yards a game), but they got dragged down by a rushing game that finished last (125 yards a game) and helped produce another late-season swoon that saw them lose four of their final five SEC games.
So, after years of running a Michael Jordan offense in a LeBron James world, Spurrier appears ready to seriously adapt. If that surprises you, imagine how it surprised first-year offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, who came to the Gamecocks from Appalachian State and found a coaching legend receptive to almost all of Elliott's ideas for tweaks to the offense. "Coach had been so successful with his offense throughout the years," Elliott said. "I just felt like maybe they needed a change."
So Elliott brought in the no-huddle and the inside zone runs. The plays -- used well by West Virginia, Oregon and others -- allow linemen the flexibility to block the closest defender and backs the flexibility to go where the play takes them instead of hitting a specific hole. South Carolina experimented with some zone plays last year, but abandoned them shortly after the season began. Spurrier's current excitement suggests he'll be willing to commit to the zone plays in 2010. He certainly has committed to Elliott, upon whom he has bestowed the title of Run Game Coordinator.
"That's his thing. It's not mine. This is some new stuff for me," Spurrier said. "We used to just run draw plays and throw it, run a few sweeps and this, that and the other. So we're running that inside zone. That's what they call it now. It can go anywhere. That's the beauty of the play. You can block any defensive front."
Spurrier wasn't the only one praising the scheme at South Carolina's scrimmage. Tailback Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks' top recruit for the class of 2010, drove down from his home in Duncan, S.C., to watch the offense he almost certainly will play a role in this fall. "I'm really excited about that," Lattimore said. "It's something I'm used to. We did a lot of zone stuff [in high school] -- the same way they're doing and the same way they're blocking it."
Will the man who fought the shotgun until his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback nearly got killed by Florida State rushers in 1996 be comfortable running a no-huddle? Not entirely, but Spurrier is willing to give it a try. "I'm not a big believer in all-the-time no-huddles," Spurrier said. "I believe, at times, you've got to look a guy in the eyes and tell him, 'Here's the play.' We've still got some communication problems, but we'll do a lot of it, no question."
Perhaps Spurrier is more comfortable because he can once again give his quarterback the hook. Last year, Stephen Garcia was South Carolina's only viable option. This year, freshman early enrollee Connor Shaw is learning fast, and Spurrier believes Shaw -- a Flowery Branch, Ga., native and the younger brother of former Georgia Tech quarterback Jaybo Shaw -- will play if Garcia doesn't meet his coaches' expectations.
"We will have two ready to play," Spurrier said. "For the first time in my coaching career -- in 28 years -- I only had one guy who could play [last year]. We will play two if the first guy doesn't play the way the coaches ask him to play. It's like the left guard, safety, whatever. You've got to demand that your players play the way you coach them to play."
Maybe this is the kick in the shorts Garcia needs. Spurrier's best quarterbacks at Florida always proved themselves against a worthy competitor on the practice field. Danny Wuerffel beat out Eric Kresser. Rex Grossman beat out Jesse Palmer. Will Shaw's presence light a fire under Garcia? "We've been trying to push Stephen since he's been here," Spurrier said. "We're still trying to push him."
Garcia, meanwhile, plans to keep his job. "They're always going to bring somebody in," Garcia said. "So you've just got to be prepared for it and just do what you've got to do to keep your spot."
There is a third potential signal caller who has so far gone unmentioned. His name is Stephon Gilmore, the 6-foot-1 sophomore cornerback who might be the best athlete in the SEC. Coaches didn't want Gilmore to neglect his defensive responsibilities as a freshman, so they didn't use him in a wildcat package until the Gamecocks faced Clemson in their regular-season finale. Gilmore provided a spark that helped South Carolina beat the Tigers, and Spurrier promised to use him more on offense in 2010.
That, of course, will lead to much conjecture about what South Carolina will call this package. The standard nomenclature is "Wild" plus a school nickname or mascot. Think Wild Hog, Wild Rebel or -- at Virginia Tech -- Wild Turkey. Needless to say, if South Carolina follows this trend, the result will launch debates among editors about whether they can print the name of South Carolina's package in a family publication.
If that's the biggest hurdle South Carolina's offense faces, Spurrier will be thrilled. It probably required quite a bit of soul-searching for the proud coach to realize he needed to adapt his offense to excel, but with the SEC East open for the taking, the ultimate prize is worth swallowing his pride.
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