After South Carolina's snub by the Independence Bowl, Steve Spurrier looked ahead Sunday to next season when most of USC's best players will return, except for a handful of seniors that played a significant number of snaps.
But it's someone who never played a snap this season that may have Spurrier the most excited: strong-armed freshman quarterback Stephen Garcia, possibly the crown jewel of last February's signing class.
With the offensive line expected to be a question mark again, USC desperately needs a quarterback who can escape trouble and scamper for first downs. Neither Blake Mitchell or Chris Smelley exhibited that skill this season.
Spurrier has been known for developing drop-back, pro-style quarterbacks that remain in the pockets and fire away at opposing secondaries.
But, as the old saying goes, the times are changing. Nowadays, defenses are more complex and exceptionally aggressive in coming after the quarterback.
"The more I watch college football, the more I realize how important it is to have a quarterback that can move around a little bit," Spurrier said. "He doesn't have to be a tremendous running quarterback. But he has to be able to jump up in there and make five, six, seven yards and Stephen can do that. He's a good athlete that can run around. He's an excellent passer."
Provided he's overcome his maturity issues, Garcia will compete with Smelley and Tommy Beecher for the starting quarterback job during spring practice.
"(Garcia) still has a lot to learn, but that's why we have practice," Spurrier said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how he progresses in the spring and the competition to see who will be number one. We'll put in some quarterback run stuff and see if that won't help our offense."
Garcia, who threw for more than 8,000 yards in high school, enrolled at USC last January but was suspended for spring practice following a pair of arrests shortly after he arrived on campus.
Whoever wins the quarterback battle should have a talented group of wide receivers to work with. Will this group include Kenny McKinley? Spurrier thinks so.
McKinley, who set a new USC single season receptions mark with 77 in 2007, breaking Sterling Sharpe's previous record by three catches, could forgo his senior season and depart for the NFL Draft. But McKinley insisted following the Clemson game that he's return to the Gamecocks in 2008. His father echoed those sentiments in published reports, though he admitted agents have contacted his son trying to convince him to make the jump.
If McKinley returns, Dion Lecorn could become the second reliable receiver USC spent the entire 2007 campaign searching for. Lecorn emerged from a pack of freshman receivers that signed with USC last February and finished with 27 receptions
for 315 yards, an average of 11.7 yards per catch.
Six of USC's top seven receivers should return in 2008.
Along with McKinley, Spurrier said he also expects senior middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley to return to the fold after the Thomson, Ga. native suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game of the season at LSU.
"I'm confident in what they've said, they're coming back," Spurrier said. " Kenny could do what Sidney (Rice) did last year. He's been here for three years. If he decides to take off, he'll eligible to do it. I believe Kenny is a man of his word. I'm equally confident both of them will be back."
Late in the season, Spurrier acknowledged he may have overestimated the abilities of this year's team when he asserted last summer the Gamecocks could challenge for the SEC title.
As a result, don't look for any conference championship talk before the start of next season. The goals will be adjusted downward until the players show the ability to compete with the bigger teams in the league.
Spurrier made it clear both he and the players learned a valuable lesson - actions speak louder than words.
"We've learned some humility around here, I've learned some," Spurrier said. "I think the whole team has learned some. We won our last three (games) last year. We lost our last five this year. In the last game, we were a better call offensively, a better call defensively and some better execution from being 7-5, the same record we had last year. But we didn't do it."
Improvement starts in the areas of rushing offense and rushing defense. USC had the dubious distinction of finishing last in the SEC in both categories, a troubling trend in a league known for its conservatism. The Gamecocks had little success running the ball this season despite having on of the better running back combinations in the league in Cory Boyd and Mike Davis.
The Gamecocks managed just 113.7 yards per game, while allowing 209.2 yards per game on the ground, a difference of 95.5 yards per game.
"Our defense struggled against the run," Spurrier said. "When the other team is running up and down the field on you, they're going to control the clock."
Mike Davis will take over the role of top running back from Cory Boyd for his senior season, despite the fact the Columbia High graduate carried just 35 times for 135 yards during the final six games of 2007.
"Mike just didn't get a lot of opportunities and I don't know exactly why," Spurrier said. "Some things happened here and there. We weren't on the field much. We only had 52 plays in the Clemson game. So it wasn't like we were out there all the time. Hopefully, Mike Davis will have an excellent off-season and come back ready to be our starting tailback next season."
On the recruiting front, USC appears headed towards another outstanding class. Currently, USC has 15 verbal commitments from a number of talented players.
While USC is trying for a balanced class, there has been an emphasis on linebackers, Spurrier said. USC already has commitments from Shaq Wilson and Reggie Bowens.
"We trying to find a few more linebackers," he said. "And a couple of receivers and some defensive back types. We also need to add some offensive and defensive linemen. We're excited about the group pf wide receivers we signed last year."
Although most Gamecock fans are tired of seemingly never-ending mediocre campaigns, Spurrier continued to preach patience.
"I just want to encourage our fans to hang in there with us and keep the faith," Spurrier said. "It didn't work out this year. There were some reasons. We hope to be a stronger team next year. If we're really going to compete, we can't be bottom of the league in run offense and run defense. We have to run it and we have to stop the run, even against the little guys. We have to develop a stronger team."
Here's evidence of the kind of young talent USC is developing: the Gamecocks placed six players on the 2007 Sporting News All-Freshman team, more than any other SEC school.
The players honored included Lecorn, tight end Weslye Saunders, defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye, defensive end Travian Robertson, linebacker Cliff Matthews and kick returner Chris Culliver.
"We think we still have a bright future ahead here," Spurrier said. "But we have a lot of things we have to get better at if we're going to be a challenging team in the SEC. We're not that far off. We have to become a stronger team next year."
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