Steve Spurrier and South Carolina wrap-up the spring football season with the annual Garnet & Black Spring Game. The simulation game Saturday afternoon marks the 15th of 15 spring practices and is the third scrimmage of spring football. Injuries have popped up as much as new storylines have this spring, meaning there is plenty to pay attention to tomorrow afternoon. Earlier this week, Coach Spurrier tried to downplay the spring game and what spring practice has been this season for his team. "We've got a lot of players coming in this summer and got a lot of players hurt, so this is not our team by any means," Spurrier said after a practice this week. "The spring game will be a lot of players who have not played very much out there having a go at it. Spring practice is only four weeks, but the summer is two and a half months." Spurrier says he hopes to keep it simple tomorrow afternoon but no matter how much he whittles down tomorrow's meaning, there will still be plenty to examine.
Here's an outline of the storylines you should watch during the spring game:
Throughout spring practice and even in the two previous scrimmages, quarterbacks Connor Mitch, Perry Orth, and Michael Scarnecchia have split reps equally. Obviously a starter has not been named and according to Coach Spurrier, one will not be named until a week or two before the Gamecocks kick-off against North Carolina, unless one of the three run away with the job during the summer. Despite the balanced practices this spring, listening to Spurrier leads one to believe Connor Mitch is the favorite to win the job. He was listed as QB1 entering the spring and Spurrier said after a session last month that Mitch was, "ready to take some giant steps." Quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said that the most important thing for Mitch is to work on his confidence and poise. Mitch has shown good touch and power on his throws to the boundaries but seems to struggle in passes over the middle, stressing to fit the ball away from a defender's hands, often leaving it low. Last week 247 Sports' JC Shurbutt proclaimed that, "Mitch is the man at South Carolina." In his short post, Shurbutt wrote, "it looks like redshirt sophomore Connor Mitch can not only be the Gamecocks starter in 2016, but perhaps even an upgrade to last year's starter Dylan Thompson from a talent standpoint. Mitch is faster than Thompson running the ball (he's a lot like Stephen Garcia speed-wise, but not as fast as Connor Shaw) and has a better arm." An interesting take on Mitch to say the least. In terms of the other contenders, Spurrier has said that Orth is a good thrower and just knows what to do with the football while also feeling that Scarnecchia has come along well. Spurrier was critical of Mitch for the first time all spring, as well as the other two QBs, after last week's scrimmage, saying, "Connor Mitch held the ball too much at times and threw late at times, as did all of them."
The Defensive Scheme
Only a mature and well-informed football eye could possibly see schematic changes in tomorrow's scrimmage. Whether you notice them or not, they are there. New co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke is in the midst of implementing changes to the Gamecock defense. He's taking the familiar 4-2-5 look and giving it his 4-3 touch. In correlation with Hoke is the other co-defensive coordinator, Lorenzo Ward. The criticized Ward says he, as well as the other staff members, have gotten along well with Hoke and are all-in on his changes. Ward feels the players are handling it well and the coaches are doing a good job of explaining the finer points of the new system. In Hoke's defense, each player has a specific responsibility and the coaches have worked hard to make sure the troops understand that. Hoke says they have completed the installation of the defense so now the job is to have continuous, correct reps to perfect it. He also added that they never had to spend an extra day on something because the defense didn't understand what they had in front of them. Grasping the gameplan last year was a rumored flaw of last year's group and Hoke hopes to avoid that this season. The four points Hoke has drilled into his players are assignment, alignment, technique, and key. The package is in, just time to fine-tune it so the little things don't get you beat.
The New Players
While Spurrier explained that his team has a lot of players coming in this summer, 14 newbies have joined the team since the Independence Bowl. The big names are Marquavius Lewis, Jerad Washington, Darin Smalls, and Dexter Wideman. Lewis, a defensive end, and Wideman, a defensive tackle, were brought in to improve a dreadful pass rush last season and both made waves early on this spring but for different reasons. Lewis proclaimed that his goal this year was a double-digit sack season. Ward noted the difficulty of accomplishing something like that but said he's been impressed with Lewis' ability. Spurrier has remarked that on some occasions the offensive line hasn't been able to block Lewis during practice. Hoke said that Lewis has jumped out and that he just "fits here." Wideman on the other hand missed too many classes and found himself on the verge of being suspended for the opening game. Once Spurrier threatened that consequence we haven't heard a thing about any academic troubles. Defensive line coach Deke Adams said that Wideman, who's coming from Camden Military Academy, is still adjusting to the speed of this level but that the staff is excited about his ability and tools. Smalls, a former 4-star CB, and Washington, a WR who has impressed Steve Spurrier Jr, will miss the spring game due to injuries.
The Position Swap
A few players have switched positions but no change has been documented more than a certain swap on defense. Former SPUR Jordan Diggs and safety T.J. Gurley switched positions this spring, a move that aligns with the new profiles in Hoke's defense. In the style Hoke wants to play, the better coverage guy (Gurley) needs to be closer to the line of scrimmage, playing like a true nickelback. The strong safety in the system has less one-on-one coverage responsibility, freeing him up to roam the field. "They're doing good," Hoke said of their transition. "Gurley fits what we're looking for there. Diggs fits the profile of a safety (in our defense). They've made the transition really easy." Another position change that's worth paying attention to is the move from defensive end to weakside linebacker by Bryson Allen-Williams. BAW currently sits second on the depth chart at the WLB position behind Jonathan Walton.
The Pass Catchers
Head coach Steve Spurrier and wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. have both declared that the wide receiver position is wide-open behind star Pharoh Cooper. In the mix for open receiver spots, one player has separated himself from the pack: Deebo Samuel. By the time the North Carolina game rolls around, every Gamecock fan will know his name. He's going to be a fan favorite before South Carolina even kicks the ball off in Charlotte. Samuel has turned heads all winter and spring with his speed and ability. Although the Head Ball Coach has said Samuel is going to play a lot, he also mentioned Samuel has a ways to go. Spurrier says Samuel "plays like a freshman," and that needs to learn how to "play fast." That hasn't stopped him from reeling off highlights in practice though. "Deebo Samuel, he's really impressed me," said QB Perry Orth. "He's got talent, lots of ability and talent," Spurrier Jr. said of Samuel. Samuel is flanked by two other redshirt freshman that have impressed me, Shaq Davidson and Terry Googer. Googer, a former high school QB, has also caught the eye of Spurrier Jr. "Not as fast as you want one of your wide receiver's to be but he's big, and he can play on that," Jr. said. "When he runs routes and there's a guy all over him, he catches it, and there's value in that. He catches with people all over him. When the ball is in the air, he's done a good job of coming down with it. He's got a good attitude and a good personality, he'll be alright." A couple tight ends have impressed the coaching staff as well: Dan August and K.C. Crosby. August led all receivers in the first scrimmage with five catches for 44 yards. Jerad Washington and Shamier Jeffery are others in contention for a high spot on the depth chart. Washington has impressed Spurrier Jr. with his quickness, intellect, and presence on the field. Both Washington and Jeffery will likely miss the spring game however with injuries. Shon Carson has had reps in which he was split out wide this spring, pay attention to No. 7 on Saturday in case he does and can get the ball in some space. Opportunity abound in this group.
This team will only be as good as they are up front. The front seven will make it easier on the guys on the perimeter on defense and the offensive line will make Mitch, or whatever new Gamecock signal caller is taking the snaps, have an easier transition. As hard as it will be notice the schematic changes in the defense, it will be equally as hard, if not harder, to notice production and development in the trenches. You've already been warned about Marquavius Lewis. On the defensive end as well, Phillip Dukes has had himself a nice spring. Dukes has spent time at both defensive tackle positions in spring practice, the nose tackle and the 3-technique. Deke Adams said if Dukes loses 10-15 pounds, one of the starting DT spots is likely his. Duke revealed after a practice that he is currently hovering around 315 and 318 pounds but the goal is weighing in at 305. On the offensive side of the ball, a trio of Gamecock lineman have taken advantage of the extra reps. Mike Matulis, Brandon Shell, Cody Waldrop, Clayton Standik, Mason Zandi, and Malik Young have missed all or a portion of the spring, and are all expected to be out for the spring game. D.J. Park, Donnell Stanley, and Alan Knott have all stepped in and grasped the opportunity they were given because of the injuries to their teammates. Park has impressed offensive line coach Shawn Elliott with his business-like demeanor and his fire on the field. Elliott has seen Stanley take the extra reps and improve steadily all spring long. Knott, a starter for much of the year last season, has seemingly taken his ability to another level with all his extra reps. The offensive line has had protection breakdowns throughout the spring but the five and six-man crop the Gamecocks have had out their will inevitably lead to that. The lines on both side of the ball will be incredibly critical to the success this team earns in the fall.
At halftime, the Head Ball Coach will present the spring practice awards as well as recognize his former USC players from the last 10 years that are on hand. The awards presentation have always been a good indication to me as to who the hard workers are, who the leaders are, and who should be closely watched as a potential star. Brandon Wilds has taken home hardware in the oast and his progression to the talented back and leader he is now has been evident. Spurrier has invited back all players from his last 10 years in Columbia and after a private event Friday night, the alumni in town will be introduced Saturday afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium. While awards and alumni have been staples of the annual Garnet & Black Spring Game, the "off-the-bench" play also fits into that category. Two years ago, Jadeveon Clowney caught a deep pass and last season, women's basketball coach Dawn Staley pulled down a touchdown catch. Spurrier said he has lined up a big-time celebrity for it this year. Keep an eye on the sidelines.
The game entails four, 12-minute quarters and will have a regular clock in the first half and a running clock in the second half. The offense will wear garnet jerseys and the defense will wear white jerseys. The game is scheduled for noon at Williams-Brice Stadium and admission is free. The game will be on the SEC Network+ with Dave Lamont and Booger McFarland in the booth and Kaylee Hartung working the sidelines.