South Carolina enters season with new faces
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)
Usually having four new assistants is a big problem for a football staff. At South Carolina, it's just Steve Spurrier's latest step at chasing a Southeastern Conference title.
The Gamecocks head into the season with running backs coach Everette Sands, linebackers coach Kirk Botkin, secondary coach Grady Brown and special teams coordinator Joe Robinson - all first timers on a staff that led the Gamecocks to their most wins in a season ever at 11-2 last fall.
Add in Lorenzo Ward becoming the team's first-time defensive coordinator and the loss of strength coach Craig Fitzgerald and it seems like a lot of turnover for a team on the rise.
''We haven't had nearly the turnover some of those other boys have had,'' Spurrier said with a grin Sunday.
Spurrier said the group's quickly fit and kept the Gamecocks grinding through a largely quiet offseason. In fact, Spurrier's found it kind of fun to peek in on the new guys and find out how they do things. He's done it a lot with Robinson, who coached at North Carolina last season and at LSU the three years before that.
''He knows his stuff,'' Spurrier said. ''I've really enjoyed coming in to special teams meetings and watching him explain things to the guys.''
Ward had been on South Carolina's staff the previous three years and Spurrier promoted from within when defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson became head coach at Southern Miss last December.
Botkin picks up Ward's position spot at linebacker with former Southern Miss assistant Brown essentially swapping places with ex-South Carolina secondary coach Jeep Hunter, now with Johnson on the Eagles' staff.
Sands was hired to replace Jay Graham, who left to coach running backs at his alma mater of Tennessee.
Last year's special teams coach John Butler took a spot on Bill O'Brien's staff at Penn State as did Fitzgerald. Joe Connolly, Fitzgerald's assistant at South Carolina, was promoted to lead the weight room.
Botkin, who coached with Ward at Arkansas, said the transition has been smooth and easy. Spurrier is a coach who looks for people who best fit the staff instead of seeking out the biggest names, Botkin said. Jerri Spurrier reached out to Botkin's wife, Rebecca, to make sure the family was settled. ''That's what makes it fun to work here,'' he said.
Most eyes will be on Ward, the well-liked defensive assistant who took control of that side of the ball before South Carolina's 30-13 win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl last January.
Ward said he's been busier than ever tweaking a defense that finished third in the SEC last season behind national champion Alabama and conference champion LSU. The Gamecocks, Ward said, have emphasized creating turnovers with defenders' slapping and clawing at any part of the football they can see as an opposing ball carrier comes near.
''Oh, man, I was getting irritated, because we couldn't finish our runs,'' Gamecocks star tailback Marcus Lattimore said of facing his defense in the team's first two practices this weekend.
Other than that, Ward said he'll keep things similar to Johnson's schemes and has confidence in Botkin, Brown and defensive line coach Brad Lawing to help make the right calls.
''I think we've got two new (defensive) coaches that are skilled in teaching players the fundamentals,'' Ward said.
Not that they'll have to spend much time on the basics. Botkin's linebackers include five seniors, including starters Shaq Wilson, Demario Jeffery and DeVonte Holloman. ''Ask me about the linebackers next year when all those guys leave,'' Botkin said.
Sands has a good group, too, led by a nonstop dynamo in Lattimore and senior Kenny Miles. Lattimore has been cleared to fully practice after missing the Gamecocks last six games because of a torn knee ligament while making a block against Mississippi State last October. The third-string tailback is sophomore Brandon Wilds, who had three games with 100 yards or more rushing after taking over when Lattimore got hurt.
Miles said Sands has worked to know the players on a more personal level. ''That makes it easy to want to out there and work for him,'' Miles said.
One topic Sands hasn't brought up? His 1990 game at Williams-Brice Stadium when Sands rushed for over 100 yards as The Citadel upset South Carolina, 38-35. ''We won't mind if he does, though,'' Miles said.
Spurrier's glad to have this new group on board and pointed in the same direction to keep the Gamecocks moving forward. ''We hope we're going to be better,'' the coach said. ''We believe we're going to be.''