BLYTHEWOOD, S.C. (AP) Steve Spurrier is significantly more confident about South Carolina’s direction than he was at times last season.
Spurrier acknowledged it was hard to believe in the Gamecocks, particularly with a failing defense that squandered three double-digit leads in the fourth quarter in a disappointing 7-6 season that followed three straight years of 11-2 records.
”At times last year, it was hard to be proud of our team, me included,” Spurrier said Wednesday.
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Spurrier said things turned around, though, at the end of the season. The team won three of four games, a stretch that included wins in The Swamp against Florida, Spurrier’s alma mater, and against his one-time major rival Miami in the Independence Bowl.
The improvement re-energized Spurrier, he said, gave him confidence that last season was just a temporary dip instead of the start of a steady descent.
If anyone wondered where Spurrier stood, the 70-year-old coach made that clear in a pointed, hastily called press gathering last week where he criticized South Carolina ”enemies” seeking to drive a wedge into fan support and recruit commitments.
Spurrier quoted Attila the Hun and swore to South Carolina fans he wasn’t going to cut and run if things got tough.
”I plan on coaching a long time,” said Spurrier, who is starting his 11th season with the Gamecocks.
Quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said the staff had no concerns about their boss retiring any time soon, yet were glad with the effect the strong words had on players.
”Our guys are happy people, they’re enthusiastic kids,” Mangus said. ”Anytime the head coach is excited and all that, it gives you a little burst.”
Not that there aren’t plenty of questions ahead for Gamecocks.
For the first time in seven seasons, Spurrier enters the season without a lock starter at quarterback. Third-year sophomore Connor Mitch figured to have a leg up on the job entering spring practice, but Spurrier said he and his staff will work four quarterbacks (Mitch, former walk-on Perry Orth, redshirt freshman Michael Scarnecchia and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez) for a couple of weeks when practice starts Tuesday.
”Obviously, we’ve got to find a quarterback,” Spurrier said.
Spurrier brought on his friend and longtime NFL assistant Jon Hoke last winter as a co-defensive coordinator. Hoke, who was a defensive assistant at Florida in Spurrier’s final three seasons there, has shifted the Gamecocks into a 4-3 alignment looking to increase a pass rush that ranked last in the SEC with 14 sacks a year ago.
Spurrier said Hoke’s addition means co-defensive coordinator can help defensive line coach Deke Adams and linebacker coach Kirk Botkin develop the front seven. Hoke, who coached defensive backs in the NFL for Houston and Chicago the past 13 seasons, will work with the South Carolina secondary.
”I think everything is going to work well,” Spurrier said.
Spurrier was so distressed by the team’s effort at times that he thought seriously about hanging it up, especially after a 45-42 home loss to Tennessee on Nov. 1 where the Gamecocks led by two touchdowns with less than five minutes to go.
Spurrier spent less than two minutes with the media at his postgame session, saying he didn’t have anything much to say about what he saw.
But a strong group of defensive commitments and junior college transfers and a good showing in spring workouts has Spurrier thinking longer term again. After his press meeting last week, the Gamecocks picked up at least four pledges from members of 2016 class who Spurrier said are eager to get the Gamecocks back to where they were two years ago.
He has seen the same thing from his returnees.
”Our guys have showed a commitment that we’re ready to play,” Spurrier said.