COLUMBIA, S.C. – All-America defensive end Jadeveon Clowney put on a show and quarterback Connor Shaw made it back on the field as South Carolina opened football practice Friday night.
With expectations higher than ever, the Gamecocks were loose as they started drills. Several hundred people turned out, cheering loudly when Clowney stepped on the field yelling and jumping around. They cheered again when he flipped over a blocking sled.
The Gamecocks have been picked to win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and are coming off a pair of 11-2 seasons. Along with Clowney, they return Shaw, who started for most of the season, and quarterback Dylan Thompson, who helped out when Shaw was injured and impressed coach Steve Spurrier enough to be promised a significant number of snaps this season. They return four offensive linemen, too.
Spurrier was a pretty happy guy talking in July before practice began. But he was a little more pragmatic after the opening practice.
"Practice was just so-so. There wasn't anything special," Spurrier said.
There were a few wrinkles. In passing drills, Clowney appeared to be concentrating more on batting balls down, which could be a useful skill if teams double team him so he can't get into the backfield. He didn't speak to reporters after practice.
Shaw lined up only at quarterback, even though he said after practice that he still thinks he will be put at receiver on some plays when Thompson is under center.
Shaw, a senior, was on the field for the first time since undergoing foot surgery at the end of last season. He said he hasn't felt this fresh since he stepped on campus.
"I forgot how it felt like to play healthy. It felt great today," Shaw said.
The first practice even featured a fight with some real blows landing. Freshman offensive lineman Na'Ty Rodgers and sophomore defensive tackle Deon Green traded several punches to the head before teammates broke it up.
Shaw was impressed with Rodgers mixing it up his first time on the field.
"An 18-year-old kid coming out here and showing that? I love it. I love having that kind of guy up front," Shaw said.
Two possible offensive starters missed the first practice. Tight end Jerell Adams and wide receiver Shaq Roland had academic issues, Spurrier said.
"Hopefully, they will learn to go to class better and be back tomorrow," Spurrier said.
Spurrier liked the crowd that lined the field several people deep.
"There's a little extra enthusiasm," Spurrier said. "Hopefully, we can live up to it. We probably couldn't tonight if we had to play anybody, but we've got three weeks or so."