Greetings from Tampa, Fla., where we are just three days away from one of the biggest games in South Carolina football history – Tuesday’s Outback Bowl against Michigan, in which the Gamecocks will try to match last season’s program-best 11-2 record.
There was no major news Saturday on either quarterback front.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Denard Robinson has been throwing the ball well, but was evasive about his role against USC. It seems likely that both Robinson and Devin Gardner will play, and USC is preparing for that scenario.
USC coach Steve Spurrier has come out and said that Connor Shaw will start and Dylan Thompson will play in the first half – a statement he made again Saturday. Spurrier said he wants to play one guy for most of the game and avoid a constant rotation, but only how the game unfolds will determine whether Shaw or Thompson gets the bulk of the playing time.
Here now, some other notes from Tampa …
** Tailback Kenny Miles has been banged up a bit lately, with a sore knee and shoulder, but his position coach, Everette Sands, said he is all set to be USC’s No. 1 back against Michigan.
“Kenny is doing fine,” Sands said. “He’s running around good and banging around. We expect him to be ready to roll. He’s been able to do everything that we’ve asked him to do. He’s stepped up and made some nice blocks on pass (protection). I don’t see any hindrance to (his shoulder).”
** Shon Carson is still scheduled to play for the first time all season, as the No. 3 back.
“He’s looking good, dusting the cobwebs off and getting back familiar with everything,” Sands said.
He will wear a light cast on his left wrist, which sidelined him for all of the season to this point. But Sands said Carson has his legs completely back under him and knows all of the playbook, even though he has only played in two games in his career, both last season.
“Don’t forget that (in 2011), before he got hurt, he was the second guy behind Marcus (Lattimore), so he learned (the plays) then,” Sands said. “He was around during the spring and participated all during the preseason and just sort of got hurt (with the wrist) right there at the end of the preseason.
“The thing is, him and (No. 2 back) Mike (Davis) are actually a lot alike. (Carson) is probably a little bit more mature, been in the weight room a little bit more, a little bit more solid and a little bit more game savvy because he has been around a little bit longer. But (Carson) does bring a little something a little bit more exciting, and I think he’s a little bit more hungry than everybody else because he hasn’t been out here for two years.”
** Just practicing as USC prepares for the bowl, as opposed to having to go from one game week to the next, has been valuable for the true freshman Davis.
“Mike’s doing a better job of just practicing full speed, which is definitely something that you’ve got to do to get better,” Sands said. “He’s been doing a great job of it these last couple practices.”
Does Sands sometimes have to light a fire under true freshmen to get them to understand the effort required for a college practice?
“At times,” Sands said with a wide grin.
** Tomorrow’s print edition story will focus on receiver Bruce Ellington. One thing he said recently stood out, and didn’t make the story. After dedicating himself to football in the offseason, Ellington said, “I thought my year would be like this.” He is USC’s leading receiver.
** A big key for Ellington was “just being around football, being around running and being around watching defenses and watching coverages and getting open and people grabbing you and hitting you,” said receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. “He’s become a better player (by) just playing the game and being committed to wanting to be a great wide receiver.”
** Between Ellington’s 38 catches for 564 yards and six touchdowns, and Ace Sanders’ 36 catches for 439 yards and seven touchdowns, USC has 74 catches for 1,003 yards and 13 touchdowns between its top two receivers.
Last season’s top two, Alshon Jeffery and Sanders, combined for 78 catches, 1,145 yards and 10 touchdowns. Jeffery went for 49, 762 and eight in his final season. So the Ellington-Sanders combination has done well in replacing the Jeffery-Sanders duo, and is obviously a more equitable split.
** Spurrier Jr. said he was disappointed about rarely used receiver D.L. Moore (eight catches this season, 40 for his career) being suspended for his final game because he broke an unspecified team rule.
“That’s disappointing,” Spurrier Jr. said. “A guy I’ve always just kind of respected. He was never a great player, but he was a pretty good one, and he had some memorable receptions and certainly contributed to this team a lot more than others. He gets his degree. He doesn’t leave on a great note, but he doesn’t leave on an awful note. I’m proud of some of the things he’s done here, but it’s sad that he couldn’t be here and enjoy the week.”
** This bowl is a homecoming of sorts of Sanders, who grew up in Bradenton, 45 miles south of Tampa.
“Ace is a really intelligent kid,” Spurrier Jr. said. “He’s fast, he’s quick, he’s aggressive. He’s gotten stronger. One of the things that’s helped him, too, is just returning punts. Because that requires some courage and you have to kind of learn that, and he’s learned that. And he plays receiver with more courage than he used to in the past. Just the more you play, the more you learn about how you get open, where you need to go, and how you separate from people. He just has a better awareness of the game.”
Even though Sanders is small – 5-8 and 175 pounds – he can do things that bigger receivers can’t do.
“You can get in and out of cuts quicker and you move a little faster versus big guys,” Spurrier Jr. said. “It’s a different game. I coach bigger guys differently in how they release and how they run, versus little, quicker guys – avoid contact and avoid ever getting near a guy. Alshon, we told him, ‘You just start running into people. Go get open.’ Ace can’t do that. If he runs into anybody, he’s covered. He’s got to work his feet and work his hands and get off of people and separate and he does a very good job of that.”
** Spurrier Jr. isn’t sure if Ellington will play football, basketball or both next year.
“I’ve always encouraged him to play both,” Spurrier Jr. said. “I think he’s pretty good at both and I think he’s got to do what he loves to do. I think it’s up to him, what he’s best at. I don’t want to be one of those guys who says, ‘You need to play football because you’re going to the NFL and you can’t play in the NBA.’ I’m not going to be that guy. You’ve got to do what you think is best for you, what you enjoy the most, what you think you’ll have the best career in.
“If you think you can play in the NBA, maybe you can. I can’t tell you (that) you can or you can’t. But you’re an awfully talented football player. You’re especially talented in the SEC. You’ve proven you can play at the highest level, and I’m impressed with what you do, but you certainly have to do what’s best for you. I’ve told him that since the day I’ve met him.”
** Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott likes an asset Carson brings to the run game.
“I call him a jump-cutting back,” Elliott said. “He can really see a crease back side and does a great job of running the inside zone. I’m looking forward to seeing him out there. I’ve had high hopes ever since he’s been on campus.”
** Elliott knows USC must be aware of Michigan’s leading tackler, linebacker Jake Ryan.
“When they bring (Ryan) and rush him off the edge, he does a good job,” Elliott said. “We’re going to have to find out where he is at all times and make our calls not to him, so to speak, but we’ve got to know where he is.”
** Elliott said tackle Mike Matulis, who now has undergone two shoulder surgeries in two seasons at USC, should be back in the middle of next summer. He also missed spring practices leading into this season.
** At his press conference, USC head coach Steve Spurrier was asked some big-picture questions about his career and longevity.
“I think what keeps most coaches going a long time is if they don’t get fired or run off,” he said. “I haven’t gotten fired or run off. Life’s pretty good as a coach when you can win nine, 10 (games). I’ve got my son coaching and I’ve got a son who is a graduate assistant. A lot of my family lives up there in Columbia, so it’s sort of a nice, comfortable place for me. I think I’m as healthy as I was 20 years ago. If it starts going bad, I’ll resign or something. That’s one of my goals, is not to be a fired coach and not to take (buyout) money for doing nothing. When I go out, I’m going to go out. That’s just important to me.”
** Spurrier also believes USC is getting a different type of player now, which makes his life easier.
“We’ve got a good bunch of guys now,” he said. “We don’t have as many goofy-type guys as we had in the past. Maybe we’ve just recruited guys who are smarter. We’re not worried about a guy coming in late, drinking too much or something like that. I know guys are going to have a few beers during bowl week. But it seems like we don’t have too many to worry about getting in trouble, like some of these other schools we’ve been reading about. We’ve not always had that.”
** Spurrier hasn’t been entirely pleased with USC’s run blocking this season. USC ranks No. 85 nationally with 142.9 rushing yards per game and No. 102 with 3.62 yards per carry. Last season, USC was No. 26 with 192.1 yards per game and No. 36 with 4.52 yards per carry.
Of course, sacks are factored into that. USC is No. 107 this season with 35 sacks allowed, compared to No. 85 last season, with 30 sacks allowed. This, despite the fact that USC’s offense, for the second straight year, focuses more on the run than the pass.
“It’s been OK,” Spurrier said of the run blocking this year. “It’s not been super. We could do better, but those guys have played well enough at times, certainly. We have to run (against Michigan). We’re not good enough to throw 40 times, although we did last game, didn’t we?”
Yes, USC threw the ball 41 times in a win over Clemson.