This spring is an important one for South Carolina’s new offensive pieces.
The Gamecocks lost running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Ace Sanders off last year’s team, along with center T.J. Johnson. But their offense remains otherwise mostly intact, as long as you consider Rory Anderson an equal to Justice Cunningham at tight end.
Mike Davis carried 52 times for 275 yards and two touchdowns last season, and now he is stepping in as Lattimore’s replacement. Pass blocking was a major issue for Davis last season, but he has made significant progress.
“He looks like he’s a whole lot more comfortable,” said running backs coach Everette Sands. “You can tell he’s had some time in the offense. He’s understanding it better. For instance, (Thursday), he picked up a blitz that I’m 100 percent positive he wouldn’t have picked up in the fall. He’s paying attention more to the details, and he’s definitely a lot better this spring thus far than he was in the fall.
“You can just tell that he’s more comfortable with the offense. Some people use the concept: The game has slowed down for him. It looks like it has. You can just tell he has more confidence in what he’s doing. Sometimes, last fall, you could tell he was a little hesitant and not quite sure what he was doing. Now, he’s more confident. He’s doing a good job this spring.”
Sands said he sees that confidence manifest itself in how quickly Davis is able to answer his questions in the meeting room, particularly the ones about blitz pickups.
With Sanders gone, USC needs to find a receiver to complement Bruce Ellington, who was essentially the co-No. 1 last year with Sanders. There are no shortage of names in contention for the No. 2 spot – Nick Jones, Shaq Roland, Damiere Byrd and Shamier Jeffery, just to name four. Saturday morning’s first spring scrimmage will provide a chance for less experienced receivers to see some action.
Perhaps the most intriguing of those four is Jeffery, a third-year sophomore who didn’t have any catches last season while playing in just three games as a redshirt freshman – East Carolina, Arkansas and Michigan. He is, of course, the younger brother of former star USC receiver Alshon Jeffery, now with the Chicago Bears.
By all accounts, the younger Jeffery has refocused himself this spring, intent on finding a role in this offense.
“I slimmed down a little bit, got a little faster,” Jeffery said. “I was talking to my brother and he was saying, ‘Just keep positive. Stay focused. Keep working hard each and every day.’ That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve just been trying to keep it straight forward. I’m not trying to step back. I’m trying to keep it going in the straight direction.”
He admitted last year was a challenge for him.
“It really was,” he said. “I had a minor setback when I hurt my (knee) meniscus. I’m on the right path right now. (The knee) bugged me for a good little bit.”
Not getting playing time last year was “kind of tough, but at the same time, it’s just life and you’ve just got to work on things,” he said.
Receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said Jeffery is “much more ready because he wasn’t ready last year. He’s giving better effort, he’s smarter, he’s paying attention better, he’s working harder. He’s much more prepared right now. There’s still a lot of time between now and next year, but his attitude and his work ethic and his knowledge of the game is a lot better than what it was last year.”
Did Spurrier Jr. talk to Jeffery to spark him to work harder?
“A little bit, but still, it hits everybody a little different,” Spurrier Jr. said. “You sit down and talk to some people and they get mad and they walk away. Some people, it hits them a little different. I’m sure there are a lot of variables that have hit him. Obviously, he’s handled it well. He’s quiet, he doesn’t say a lot and he’s not a real emotional guy, so you don’t get a lot out of him when you try to jolt him a little bit.
“But I’m sure he’s had a lot of talks. I’m sure he’s had a lot of pressures and different people telling him what they think he should or shouldn’t be and what the standard is for a great player. And on the field, in the classroom, everything he’s done has really, really been good. He’s certainly a different player than he was last year.”
Byrd is an interesting case. He has excellent speed, as evidenced by his track success with the Gamecocks. But he is just 5-9 and 168 pounds, and after having one catch as a freshman, he had 14 last season. USC remained a run-focused team last season (491 rushes to 365 pass attempts), so there weren’t going to be a ton of opportunities for a guy like Byrd, with Sanders and Ellington ahead of him. But now that Sanders is gone, Byrd has a chance to claim a bigger role in his junior season.
“He’s still got some track in him where he’s a runner and he’s a little skinny, but he’s a little tougher than you give him credit for,” Spurrier Jr. said. “He just has to learn how to play big, which he’s not. He’s not big, even when he’s tough. But he’s doing well and learning how to do all those things. He certainly is a kid that can run and can do a lot for us, so hopefully we can get him healthy and get him back out here soon.”
Byrd has been dealing with a hamstring injury from track, and Spurrier Jr. isn’t sure when he will return.
Last year’s freshman class included three receivers, all six feet or taller – Shaq Roland, Jody Fuller and Kwinton Smith. Only Roland played. He had five catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. Roland, who was Mr. Football in the state of South Carolina, is moving faster this spring than he did last fall, Spurrier Jr. said.
“He’s a lot more comfortable,” Spurrier Jr. said. “He’s moving at the speed that he can run at. He’s relaxed and he’s playing well. He’s moving fast. He looks like a receiver. (Last fall he) just was a little uncomfortable, a little unsure with some different looks, different defenses and just not 100 percent sure and comfortable with everything he did. So he was a little tentative. He’s relaxed (now). He’s got a lot better understanding of what we’re doing.”
Spurrier Jr. wants to see Fuller do a better job of catching passes.
“When the ball comes, he doesn’t catch it,” he said. “What is that, I don’t know. Some people catch it, some don’t. He’s struggled a little bit. He still needs to have a little bit better balance when he runs and cuts. When you’re running and people are pushing and shoving you, it’s a little different. He’s still getting used to all that. He’ll find out a lot about himself this spring, and certainly we’ll find out a lot about him as well.”
As for Ellington, he is transitioning from basketball to football, but back at football practice.
“We’ll give him a few days off,” Spurrier Jr. said. “He can’t relax. He can’t do it. By next week at the latest, he’ll be full speed.”
Spurrier Jr. is also USC’s recruiting coordinator, and he is anxiously awaiting word on what the NCAA will do with potentially changing recruiting rules. The NCAA this week decided to hold off on drastically deregulating recruiting. It received negative feedback from coaches. If deregulation occurs, it could result in programs increasing their recruiting support staffs. That is something Spurrier Jr. has already looked into, with potentially establishing a new position.
“I have made my opinion (known) in the past on what I think is right or wrong and they’ve never listened to me,” Spurrier Jr. said. “I certainly have disagreed with the majority of things that they’ve pushed forward. But whatever the rules are, we’re going to interpret them the best we can and try to compete with the guys that want to spend as much money as they can doing it.
“I appreciate that they’re suspending them a little bit. I don’t know what the final verdict will be. I hope it’s soon, though. I call our compliance director once a week and I’m like, ‘Where are we? Going into spring evaluation period, what can we or can’t we do? What’s different?’ You just kind of have to adapt with it.
“From what I understand, the rules going into spring evaluation will not change. Any rules that are on the table are the ones that will not come into effect until July 1 anyway. But we’re still talking about hiring people. We’re still talking about what we can mail out. But what exact direction you’re going to go with, we’re just kind of on hold with what we want to do, because we have to be ready if they say, ‘This is what you can do to move forward.’ We’re ready for that.”
The spring evaluation period is April 15 to May 31.