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August 5, 2013

The Morning After: Day 3 Instant Analysis

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Sunday was not only South Carolina's third practice - the first in shoulder pads - but it also was Media Day, with Steve Spurrier and practically every other USC player with a pulse speaking to the assembled radio, print, online and broadcast media members from across the state and country.

With so much taking place, here are five things you should take away from Sunday's activities.

1. Sick of Jadeveon Clowney talk? Steve Spurrier is, too.

He's tired of it already, and who can blame him? After answering the millionth question about Clowney by some ESPN doofus before his official press conference even began, Spurrier said it's time to start talking about the other 21 positions on the team, one that, in case anyone has forgotten, has won 31 games over the past three seasons and finished in the top-10 two years in a row and is ranked No. 7 preseason in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

Spurrier also hinted that if you asked Jadeveon, he's probably sick of it too and would rather talk about his team. That may be true and it may not be; after all, Clowney sure looks as if he's loving every bit of attention he receives. Still, it was bound to happen where Clowney's fame could become a distraction, and the first casualty of that came Sunday when Spurrier closed practices to the public for the rest of camp.

Previously, he had kept them open for up to two weeks or so, and said Sunday he preferred letting people and the media come out to watch. But with the potential for a single autograph-seeker to wreck the eligibility of the highest-profile player in school history on the line, Spurrier wasn't going to take any chances, and who can blame him?

Still, Spurrier is kidding himself if he thinks reporters are going to stop asking about him; in fact, it's only going to get worse and worse from that perspective. Every move Clowney makes is tweeted, whether it's showing up to practice a bit late without his shoulder pads or wondering whether he's favoring one leg over another after a play or whether his breakfast tasted good or if he wished he'd ordered what somebody else had at dinner the night before.

It's all borderline ridiculous, and it's only just begun.

Spurrier does not like to be overshadowed. He never has, and he never will. I was with Clowney all day at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., following him around. Twice Spurrier had to wait in a hallway for Clowney to get done with interviews that took longer than expected, and twice Spurrier was agitated about it and barked at his media handler.

That was mid July.

It's now August, and Spurrier already is snapping at reporters (a Washington Post reporter, in fact) who wanted to ask about Clowney after he had finished saying he was done talking about him. One thing to watch closely, then, as we go forward is whether Spurrier can keep his cool throughout a preseason and during the year when all the national media attention and potential Heisman hype gets cranked up.

2. Who the heck is going to return punts?

According to Spurrier, whomever can catch the ball. After watching his candidates to replace the sensationally departed Ace Sanders, Spurrier has not been impressed with what he's seen, taking a dig at Shaq Roland by pretending to praise him for "only dropping about three of six last night."

With Spurrier's disappointment on my brain, I was watching the returners closely last night. I've always thought returning a punt was a skill you either have or you don't. You can be taught to become average, but the great ones are born knowing how to do it. With that in mind, here are my quick impressions:

Roland did better catching the ball, but when he did in the drill where they caught balls under pressure, his first instinct each time was to go side to side, which is not good and a huge pet peeve of mine in returners. Great ones, like Sanders certainly was, do not do that.

Victor Hampton is tough and fast, but when he catches the ball he hesitates, looking upfield to see where he should start running. This is also a recipe for poor returns, and it's been a trait he's had for quite a while.

On the other hand, I did like what I saw from Shon Carson. He's small, like Sanders, and I think that's an advantage in punt and kick returns when it's difficult to see where someone is when you're a defender running at full speed. What Carson did that I love is when he caught the ball, his first step was upfield. Every time. The great ones do this. The key to a punt return for good- to great yardage is in the first three steps, and if those first three steps aren't upfield, you're dead. Carson took those steps upfield and, in my opinion, is the best option of those getting a look by a long way.

3. Freshman defensive tackle Kelsey Griffin is going to be a player.

Defensive line coach Deke Adams has been in Griffin's face a good bit the past two practices - and that's a good thing. As Kelcy Quarles was telling me at Media Day earlier Sunday, if the coaches are on you, it means they care. If they're not talking to you, that's when you're in trouble.

Griffin is not in trouble. Far from it. In fact, he may be on the field faster than anyone thought given the fact that the line is the only unit on the team rated in the top-10 in the country and features stalwarts in every sense of the word in starters Quarles and J.T. Surratt. Quarles told me he personally has been impressed with Griffin, going out of his way to talk about how solid he already is as a true freshman from a strength and technique standpoint.

Sunday night, Griffin was going against Quarles and Dixon Jr. in learning how to fight through a double team and was struggling at first. "You ain't the strongest man no more!," Adams shouted to him as he was blocked to the ground. "This ain't high school." After being told what he did wrong, on the next play Griffin fought through the two upperclassmen and won at least Adams' respect. "There you go! There you go!" It was an ecouraging moment for the 6-foot-2, 292-pound four-star prospect from Buford, Ga.'s Mill Creek High School.

With the defensive tackle position five solid players right now - two juniors (Quarles and Suratt) and three sophomores (Gerald Dixon Jr., Deon Green and Phillip Dukes), the future of the interior line looks very bright, indeed.

4. Roland shows up.

It took the better part of three practices, but Shaq Roland finally showed what made him South Carolina's Mr. Football toward the end of Sunday night's practice, catching a ball going out of bounds with his fingertips and holding on while getting absolutely blistered by cornerback Rico McWilliams in what was the offensive highlight of the evening.

Last year, the knock on Roland was he inconsistent in both practice and in games. Over the offseason, the word leaking out from the coaching staff has been how much better Roland has been in his preparation, especially given the enormous opportunity created by the departure of Ace Sanders and the glaring need for a breakout receiving threat to go with proven performer Bruce Ellington.

It was only one catch, but it was a big one for Roland's confidence. He's not a freshman finding his way anymore, and it's time for him to start showing why he was considered the best high school player in South Carolina and earn the mantle left him by predecessors such as Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore and some dude named Clowney.

5. Redshirting would benefit Connor Mitch.

Look, I know a lot of people were super-excited about Mitch's signing, and rightfully so. He has the size you want (6-3, 210), and his intelligence and desire seem just right for the leadership and game awareness Spurrier requires from his charges.

But three games in, Mitch looks understandably lost. His passes look tentative (he threw one interception in seven-on-sevens and should have had at least two more picked off), he hesitates to release the ball, he struggles handling the shotgun snap and his arm strength isn't what I hoped it might be coming in. It's unfair to have expected anything different, and what will aid his development more than anything else - and I cannot overstate this enough - is that the leadership, talent and chemistry of the guys ahead of him in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson is as good as the school has ever had, if not better. Shaw is 17-3 as a starter, and Thompson is a kid with the best arm USC has had in a decade and a growing legend to boot for heroics in big situations.

All of this will benefit Mitch immensely. Unlike past years (more than most Gamecock fans wish to count) where a highly touted quarterback was touted as a savior and thrown into the fire too quickly only to fail, Mitch carries those guys' credentials and is basically unnecessary to this team's success.

So, don't be surprised if for that reason alone he is put on the shelf for safe keeping so that when his time comes as perhaps the No. 2 to senior Dylan Thompson in 2014, he's ready to create a legend of his own.

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