It's easy to tell that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier believes this is his best chance in nine seasons to win the Southeastern Conference title: He's upped the wisecracks and toned down the hype for the Gamecocks and All-American Jadeveon Clowney.
Spurrier has rarely missed a chance to take a jab at in-state rival Clemson this offseason. He also abruptly closed fall camp to the public after three days because of what he decided was too many cellphone snoops and autograph hounds fixated on the SEC's reigning defensive player of the year.
The clincher was when video went viral of Clowney flipping a two-man tackling sled with Gerald Dixon at the team's opening workout Aug. 2. Spurrier quipped it's time to focus on all the Gamecocks and not just Clowney.
Clowney is "tired of it, and I think I am tired of it," Spurrier said. "We're just trying to get more into team stuff."
And from Spurrier's view, this may be the group that breaks through for South Carolina's first-ever SEC crown and gives Spurrier his seventh league title overall.
Clowney gives the Gamecocks a great start.
South Carolina is 22-4 since the 6-foot-6, 274-pound junior signed two years ago. He posted 13 sacks a year ago and closed the season with the hit that's been talked about ever since — a helmet-dislodging stop of Michigan's Vincent Smith in South Carolina's Outback Bowl victory last New Year's Day.
Clowney's only increased the frenzy with his work ethic and developing talent (he was clocked running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash this summer).
"If I get in shape, then I'm not worried about my game," said Clowney, considered the top prospect in next spring's NFL draft. "Because my game was pretty good last year."
Still, it's going to take more than Clowney to succeed in the rugged SEC.
"Football is the ultimate team sport. It takes a lot of guys," Spurrier said. "Jadeveon is going to do his part, but the rest of us, we have to do our part, too."
Here are five things to watch during the Gamecocks' upcoming season:
1. START WITH CLOWNEY: He's been an impact player since arriving on campus, forcing a crucial, late-game fumble when he caught Georgia's Aaron Murray in South Carolina's win between the hedges his freshman year. Even in games when Clowney is held mostly in check, he changes games. That happened twice last year when Clowney blew past Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, sacked quarterback Tyler Bray and forced a fumble with the Vols driving for a go-ahead score. In the Outback Bowl, Michigan's Taylor Lewan kept Clowney out of the spotlight until "The Hit." Clowney recovered the fumble and the Gamecocks went onto a 33-28 win.
2. CLOWNEY'S FRIENDS UP FRONT: The Gamecocks' deepest and most skilled spot may be defensive line. 6-5 Chaz Sutton, the other defensive end, had 25 tackles and five sacks last season and is almost as quick as Clowney. DT Kelcy Quarles is a massive run stopper Spurrier compared to all-time great Warren Sapp, although mostly for making plays despite carrying a bit of a belly.
3. RUNNING GAME: It's the first time in three years South Carolina's offense starts without Marcus Lattimore in the backfield. He led the Gamecocks in rushing his three seasons, despite missing the last half of his sophomore and junior years because of injuries. Also gone is Kenny Miles, the team's leading rusher in 2009 before Lattimore arrived. Left behind are sophomores in Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds with a combined 159 career carries.
4. THE LINEBACKERS: The biggest question for South Carolina's defense will be when players get past the talented front. The Gamecocks lost five senior linebackers from last year, including two of its top three tacklers from last year in Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens. There's little returning experience and expected starter Cedrick Cooper is coming off a knee injury that kept him out of spring ball.
5. TWO QUARTERBACKS: Despite Spurrier's penchant for shuffling quarterbacks, he says the job belongs to senior Connor Shaw, who missed spring workouts because of a foot injury. Shaw, 17-3 as a starter, says he's back at 100 percent and doesn't plan to change his go-for-broke running style that's accounted for 960 yards and 11 touchdowns the past two years. Backup Dylan Thompson threw for more than 300 yards in both his starts last season, including a victory at Clemson last fall.
Predicted order of finish in the SEC East: Second.
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