Here’s a gross understatement: since the arrival of Steve Spurrier, the South Carolina football program has undergone a massive culture change. From facility upgrades, to raised expectations both fan and player, to an impatience with losing - our program in 2014 looks radically different than it did in 2004.
No area has been more affected than the team’s overall athletic ability.
As I watched the Capital One Bowl tick off the final few seconds, I reminisced over an unprecedented wave of talent. At various points, we’ve had the nation’s best running back, wide receiver, and defensive end. We’ve played All-American caliber athletes like Melvin Ingram and Stephon Gilmore with All-SEC contributors like Mike Davis, Ace Sanders, DJ Swearinger, Devin Taylor, Chaz Sutton, DeVonte Holloman, Cliff Matthews, Antonio Allen and a few I’m certain to be forgetting. My apologies to those deserving mention.
I well remember the days we were happy with an All-SEC selection or two.
This significant upgrade in talent makes the team so much more competitive and, frankly, a little nasty. And that, O Gamecock Nation, has been the most exciting improvement.
The only persistent talent gap remains on the offensive line. It takes just one or two guys to run, throw, and catch. But consistent offense requires five freakishly athletic behemoths working together and staying healthy. There simply aren’t that many Goliaths walking among us. If we’re being honest, the traditional powerhouses have been better at getting those guys than we have been. O-line play cost us this year against Tennessee and last year against LSU.
Even though the close of 2013 marks the end of an era of sorts - Jadeveon’s reign - I hope it’s a commencement. Now that we’ve slogged through the building process, it seems we’re poised for consistent success, as three consecutive 11-win seasons portend.
And that brings me to my favorite Gamecock in a generation. Marcus was a tragic figure. Jadeveon was almost an embarrassment of riches. Alshon always felt a little underutilized, especially when the QB-We-Shall-Not-Mention consistently bounced easy throws five yards wide of the best target in program history.
Conner Shaw. An athlete whose influence will far outlast his performance. Surprisingly athletic, yet slightly flawed as a true passer. You can find out everything you need to know about Conner by watching the 2014 Capital One Bowl trophy ceremony. Fresh off one his best performances as the Gamecock Quarterback, Conner embraced the bittersweet moment of being named MVP in his final collegiate game. As he fought back tears and thanked Gamecock nation, I found myself getting little dusty-eyed.
Here is the best compliment I can give a collegiate athlete - Conner cared. He cared about winning. He played with pride and grit. He wasn’t for style points, but for winning and winning with class. I’m not saying, by any means, that Conner’s teammates had concerns other than winning. It’s just that Conner took competitive zeal to the superlative.
And that’s why he’s my favorite Gamecock since ... well ... since I don’t remember when.
In 2009, two years after I moved away from Columbia, the Gamecocks traveled to Fayetteville, which was close-ish to my new digs. So, naturally, I went to great expense to get to the game. We played decent in the first half, but basically crapped the bed in the second. What’s worse, from my vantage point near the sideline, the guys didn’t seem all that perplexed over it. After all the expense I couldn’t really afford to watch them play, it was every bit of adult maturity I possessed not to walk down to the sideline and chew them out myself. The least I could expect was effort.
I never had to worry about that with Conner’s teams. We lost a few tough ones - none at home. But, man, did we fight. I recall the start of 2011, when Conner won the job from the QB-We-Shall-Not-Mention in fall camp. He played nervous in the opener, fell behind, and then got benched to the great delight of Gamecock Nation. And then, in the coming weeks, we saw why Conner won the job in the first place. I was back in South Carolina for Conner’s second start against Kentucky. What a relief to see the ball thrown to the right guy at the right time in the right place. The team took off because the talent took over.
And now, instead of cheering his benching, we’re saying thank you.
There are those of us who love the game, but lack the athletic talent to play it. For us, we can’t fathom a mindset that doesn’t care. We would give just about anything to play collegiately - we have a little Rudy Ruettiger in us. So when we see somebody with the God-given talent and a lack of effort, we simply don’t understand that.
Effort is the easiest thing. Effort is the hardest thing. So, if I could speak for all those fans who really love the game, and truly appreciate effort, thank you, Conner. Thank you for the effort. Thank you for playing your heart out. Thank you for making us so proud to be South Carolina Gamecocks.