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July 8, 2012

The Spurrier Seven: Turning Points



In the first installment of this multi-part summer series, we look back at several key decisions and moments during coach Steve Spurrier's seven seasons in Columbia that have propelled South Carolina's football team to some of the most exciting times in the program's history.

1. EARLY NOTABLE WINS

The new era at South Carolina started off with the kind of offensive fireworks that many fans were expecting out of a Steve Spurrier-coached team. There was a crowd inside Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 1, 2005, every bit of anxious and excited, and it did not take long for it to be rewarded with what it was waiting to see.

USC used just a little over two minutes of clock before Blake Mitchell hit Noah Whiteside on a patented Spurrier deep post for the first score of the game and the era, and the Gamecocks added another before the clock hit seven minutes in the first quarter. Carolina jumped to a 24-3 lead before ultimately settling for a 24-15 win over UCF in the first game of Spurrier's tenure.

The middle of that first season was unremarkable: A close loss in Athens to Georgia in a game that USC certainly could have won, sound beatings from Alabama and Auburn, massive victories over Troy and Kentucky and a close win over a Jay Cutler-led Vanderbilt squad.

It was the week after that game that was one of the biggest in recent memory. The Gamecocks went on the road and beat Tennessee by a point on the strength of a Josh Brown field goal that cleared the crossbar by the slightest of margins. No, it was not a Top-10 opponent; it was a 3-3 Tennessee squad that had fallen well short of the lofty preseason expectations going into 2005. However, the Gamecocks had never won at Tennessee. Phillip Fulmer had never lost to South Carolina since he took over in 1992, the year that Johnny Majors was forced out soon after losing to the Gamecocks in Columbia. With the win, USC showed it could finally beat a team that had given USC fits in the past, and that it came the night where Peyton Manning's jersey was retired made it a little extra sweet. Manning never could beat Spurrier when the Head Ball Coach was at Florida.

That was not the only big win of the season, however. USC won another close one the following week at Arkansas, setting the stage for Spurrier's first matchup against his former school the next game. Urban Meyer was in his first season at the helm of the Florida program and was still in the race for the SEC East when South Carolina knocked the Gators out of the running with a 30-22 win in Columbia. That victory broke another streak of futility against an SEC East power, this one a 14-game losing stretch to Florida, and proved that the Gamecocks could compete with the best in the conference.

2. ELLIS JOHNSON

In January 2008, it was current Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder who was set to be calling the Gamecocks' defense in Spurrier's fourth season. VanGorder had been on the job a few weeks when his friend Mike Smith called about taking the same position with the Atlanta Falcons. VanGorder accepted and Spurrier and USC were back to square one, needing to make a hire at a crucial position.

Enter Palmetto State native Ellis Johnson. Spurrier moved quickly to secure the Winnsboro native, who had been at Arkansas less than a month when he got the call from USC. In addition to being born in South Carolina, Johnson had previously spent time in the high school ranks in the state as well as stints at Clemson and as head coach at The Citadel. He also was on staff at Alabama for a national championionship in 1992, Mississippi State, and other major programs during his lengthy coaching career.

The veteran defensive coordinator, now head coach at Southern Miss, helped architect some of the best defenses in quite some time for the Gamecocks. The results in his first season were immediate: The Gamecocks went from one of the nation's worst run-defending teams (209 yards per game on the ground surrendered in 2007, close to the bottom in the country) to a top-50 team in that category, allowing just around 133 yards on the ground per gamein 2008. The Gamecocks also improved in scoring defense, turnovers forced, and total defense (yards) categories in Johnson's first season.

An underrated aspect of Johnson's time at South Carolina was the work he did on the recruiting trail. When hired, he took over the fruitful recruiting territory of Rock Hill and was faced with a come-from-behind situation with one of the country's top prospects in South Pointe High's Stephon Gilmore. Johnson landed him over Alabama, Clemson, and others despite USC being way behind before he was hired, and also nabbed a commitment from four-star DeVonte Holloman after he decommitted from Clemson. Gilmore was a Top-10 draft pick in April by Buffalo and Holloman is a starter for USC's defense.

As good as that was, Johnson saved his best work for the 2011 cycle, when he was the lead recruiter for another South Pointe prospect, Jadeveon Clowney. As the nation's No. 1 prospect coveted by every program in the country, there were twists, turns, and shenanigans at every juncture, and Johnson navigated smoothly through all of it to hold on and land Clowney's signature a couple of weeks after National Signing Day. Many casual observers assumed Clowney was a lock for the Gamecocks the entire process but not all of the factors behind the scenes in Clowney's recruitment were helping USC, and Johnson still successfully recruit him. Clowney had a big first season in Columbia, racking up SEC Freshman of the Year honors and multiple other recognitions on a national level.

On the field, Johnson's best defensive unit trotted onto the field for the 2011 season. For the year, the Gamecocks gave up just over 18 points per game and were third in the SEC (behind national champion contenders Alabama and LSU) in scoring defense, ranking 11th nationally.

***Current defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward called USC's defense in the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska***

3. RECRUITING PROWESS

In each of the seven seasons that Spurrier has been coach, he and his staff have assembled a Top 25 recruiting class (according to Rivals.com), with a very likely eighth on the way with the 2013 class in current production.

Along the way, there have been some big-time pickups that made waves on a regional or national scale, and there have been other prospects who turned out to be much more valuable than recruiting rankings indicated. The late Kenny McKinley, plus Jared Cook, Captain Munnerlyn, Eric Norwood and Jasper Brinkley head a list that goes on and on of two or three-star prospects that blossomed in Columbia.

The 2007 recruiting class, ranked sixth in the country by Rivals.com, was the one that really put the Gamecocks on the map. USC was able to sign 14 four-star prospects and one five-star prospect (Chris Culliver) in that group. Among the standout performers that came from the 2007 class: Ladi Ajiboye, Stephen Garcia, Melvin Ingram, Cliff Matthews, Travian Robertson, Patrick DiMarco, Weslye Saunders and many others. Additionally, four of the state of South Carolina's Top 10 prospects as rated by Rivals.com inked with the Gamecocks after USC had been struggling to keep talent in-state.

The biggest turn, however, may have happened in the 2009 recruiting class. The Gamecocks didn't land Malliciah Goodman, who was then the state's top prospect in the class (re-do, anyone?) but landed the next three highest-rated guys. They beat Alabama and Clemson on both Gilmore and Damario Jeffery and also nabbed Alshon Jeffery away from Southern Cal. Gilmore was a Top-10 draft pick, Jeffery a second-round pick and one of USC's best-ever receivers, and Damario Jeffery may be a starter at linebacker for the Gamecocks this season.

Aldrick Fordham, DeVonte Holloman and D.J. Swearinger were also in that key in-state crop in 2009.

The next two cycles would bring perhaps the most excitement ever to South Carolina recruiting as USC was able to ink back-to-back eventual SEC Freshmen of the Year. The first was in 2010 when Duncan Byrnes five-star Marcus Lattimore stayed home to play for the Gamecocks. The country's top running back prospect instantly transformed USC's offense the moment he stepped on campus and has been nothing short of one of the nation's best running backs.

In the 2011 cycle, the Gamecocks beat every program in the country to land the signature of Clowney, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country. The former five-star made an instant impact in Columbia as well and easily has an NFL future if he continues to progress as expected.

With the addition of Lexington four-star wide receiver Shaq Roland in the 2012 class, the Gamecock staff has inked four straight South Carolina Mr. Football winners (Gilmore, Lattimore, Clowney and Roland).

The "culture" change within the football program in terms of work ethic, academic performance and behavior can also be attributed to the coaching staff recruiting higher-caliber kids in the character department. It's something that Spurrier himself has talked about before.

4. FACILITY IMPROVEMENTS

Under former USC athletic director Eric Hyman's watch, the school launched a capital campaign as well as a $200 million facilities master plan that is still in progress.

The implications have been far-reaching and have enhanced not only recruiting, but the campus life of current student-athletes.

In 2010, the Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center opened to rave reviews from families of touted prospects. Williams-Brice Stadium received a facelift with premium seating upgrades and new paint and signage. Prospects have been wowed by a state-of-the-art training room and weight room, as well as a flat-screen TV- equipped player lounge and updated locker rooms.

A brand-new large video board is set for installation in time for the 2012 season, and the Farmers' Market renovations currently in progress will give the stadium area a much more on-campus feel.

While lately the benefits from the facilities initiatives have already paid big dividends on the recruiting trail (the lifeblood of any successful college football program), when completed, the final touches will ensure that USC is able to continue to compete with the SEC's big boys on the facilities front.

5. CRAIG FITZGERALD

There are some who believe that it is no coincidence that South Carolina had two of the school's best seasons ever on the field in 2010 and 2011 with Craig Fitzgerald running the strength and conditioning program.

"Fitz," who arrived at USC via Harvard, spent three seasons in Columbia beginning in 2009 before moving onto Penn State to work with close friend Bill O'Brien. His impact was felt quickly upon his arrival, and his results were apparent by the time he left USC. He was beloved by the players and well-respected by his fellow coaches as well as others around the strength and conditioning industry.

What Fitzgerald brought to the program at South Carolina was a fresh approach that was based on competition, camaraderie and customized workouts that focused on endurance and speed as well as strength. He also incorporated several exercises that were similar to drills that prospects perform in the NFL Combine and demanded accountability from players. The fact is that the Gamecocks, under Fitzgerald's guidance, simply looked better-conditioned than their opponents late in many contests and many players saw tremendous individual gains with his tutelage. Spurrier made no secret that he believed that Fitzgerald was an excellent strength coach. His unique style and personality endeared him to everyone familiar with him.

Another positive side effect of the Fitzgerald hire is that current Gamecock head of strength and conditioning Joe Connolly worked with him at Harvard and at South Carolina as an assistant. Connolly received the promotion once Fitzgerald took the Penn State job, and the returns from the first two (winter and Summer I) sessions of team workouts under Connolly's watch have been very positive as well.

6. SHAWN ELLIOTT

The most maligned unit on the football team during Spurrier's first several seasons at South Carolina was the offensive line. With the exception of the 2006 season (at times), when the team surrendered 1.85 sacks per game and averaged 144 yards per game rushing, the offensive line struggled mightily at times early in the Spurrier era.

Twice (in 2005 and 2008) the team averaged less than 100 rushing yards per game. In 2008, the squad gave up three sacks per game on average, which was good for 111th nationally. Never was the team able to muster more than 27 points per game on average, and through 2009, the team twice averaged just over 20 points per game. All of those were products of an offensive line group that suffered from missed opportunities on the recruiting trail, questionable evaluations and player development that did not seem up to par.

After John Hunt was let go from the staff in November 2008, Illinois offensive line coach Eric Wolford was brought in to be the head of the O-line. That was short-lived, as Wolford headed to Ohio to take the head coaching job at Youngstown State after one season in Columbia.

Enter Elliott. The fiery assistant was a veteran of the sidelines at Appalachian State, a Camden native and a Gamecock supporter.

Utilizing some of the read-option, inside-zone principles he brought from Boone, the Gamecocks have enjoyed the most success running the football and protecting the quarterback that they have had since Spurrier has been coach.

In 2010, Elliott's first season, USC jumped to 154 rushing yards per game (then the highest of the Spurrier era). The team also decreased its sack-per-game-allowed total to 2.14 per game, and averaged almost 31 points per game which was over a 10-point-per-game increase over the previous season.

The next season was even better on the ground. USC kept the sack total respectable at 2.38 allowed per game, while ballooning the rush yards per game average to 192. USC also again averaged 30 points per game.

Aside from that production and the fact that current players love playing for Elliott, he has also helped out on the recruiting trail.

Hired in January 2010, Elliott had to help keep USC's offensive line class intact in short order and did, helping keep prospects like four-star A.J. Cann, guard Ronald Patrick and tackle Cody Gibson in the fold.

In the 2011 cycle, Elliott was instrumental in landing All-American four-star tackle Brandon Shell from Goose Creek. He also was a big reason that Mike Matulis committed to the Gamecocks, as well as being involved with the rest of the offensive line class.

Elliott helped identify and recruit another strong 2012 offensive line class, including an in-state evaluation of Chapin's Mason Zandi and assists on four-star tackle Brock Stadnik, his brother Clayton and three-star Florida OL Cody Waldrop plus four-star Georgia OL Joe Harris.

Elliott has landed the top two offensive linemen in the state of South Carolina in D.J. Park and Bryce King from Dillon in the 2013 cycle. He was instrumental in gaining commitments from Georgia OL Alan Knott and J.P. Vonashek. Elliott is also responsible for recruiting two of the best prospects in USC's 2013 class in four-star linebackers Matt Rolin and Larenz Bryant.

7. CHANGING THE OFFENSE

Save for a few offensive explosions here and there during seven seasons, one thing is clear: these South Carolina teams have not been 1990s-era Florida on offense. There is no running up the score, no throwing the ball all over the field with relative ease. No, these South Carolina teams have more recently been predicated on running the football and playing good defense.

Credit Spurrier for making those adjustments, regardless of how long it may have taken. A few things helped along the way. USC quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus, who played for Spurrier at Florida, brought fresh ideas from his offensive coordinator/head coaching background. Elliott brought zone-read principles from Appalachian State that have been very successful in the Gamecocks' running attack.

Some would argue that it was overdue, but Spurrier finally pulled Stephen Garcia after last season's Auburn debacle and inserted Connor Shaw, who is a perfect fit for what USC does offensively, and helped lead the Gamecocks to the school's best season in history. Shaw is finally a quarterback that Spurrier can rely on to get it done on and off the field with regularity.

Now, USC's offense looks like a blend of several different things; some I-formation, some shotgun, some double-tight. Many of the actual plays are not what Spurrier's bread and butter was his entire career, but it's what has worked.

It has been a combination of factors, but it's no coincidence that a shift in Spurrier's philosophy on offense has contributed heavily to the best two offensive seasons since he has been in Columbia.

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Stay tuned for more in the "Spurrier Seven" series, including:

Which seven prospects have been the biggest signings of the Spurrier era?

What have been the seven biggest victories since 2005?

What have been the biggest disappointments?

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