Part one of a two-part interview.
Tommy Suggs thought that Steve Spurrier's second spring practice as South Carolina head coach would go a little more smoothly than his first.
He was right.
While Spurrier acknowledges USC still has a long ways to go to become a SEC championship contender, Suggs noticed an important difference between the two spring practices - there was not as much precious practice time spent teaching the basics this time around.
"The one thing that jumped out at me watching the practices and the spring game was that the kids knew where to go," Suggs told GamecockCentral.com. "There were a lot of good things I saw. Everyone knew what they were supposed to do. There's some real value there. They didn't have to waste a lot of time explaining plays and stuff like that."
Redshirt junior quarterback Blake Mitchell, who was recently named by Sports Illustrated as a Player to Watch in the 2006 Heisman Trophy race, an unfathomable thought only a year ago, caught Suggs' eye for the rapid pace of his improvement.
"Blake has certainly come a long way," Suggs said. "This is an interesting parallel but he made as much progress from the end of spring last year to the beginning of fall as Mike Davis did from the beginning of fall to the end of the year."
While Mitchell may have been largely unknown entering the 2005 season, his success in leading USC to a 7-5 record, including victories over Tennessee and Florida, assures that he will have the full attention of opponents next season.
"Blake can't hide now," Suggs said. "Last year he was somewhat of an unknown except for South Carolina fans. Steve Spurrier, in my opinion, did a masterful job to bring him from where he was, which was really nowhere, to being one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. He hit a dry spell there at the end but he was really playing well for about five or six games."
Mitchell, who could become one of the top signal-callers in the SEC in 2006 with a year of seasoning under his belt, completed 59 percent of his passes (195-for-337) last season with 18 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions.
The challenge for Mitchell this upcoming season, Suggs says, is to improve on those numbers in order to keep Coach Spurrier and the fans pleased with his progress.
"There will be high expectations for him and there should be," Suggs. "Not only from Coach Spurrier but from the fans. My question is, can Blake respond to that? Is he tough enough mentally? Is he the type of kid who can take the leadership role over? Does he have that toughness, that will, that passion, that leadership capability? A Steve Spurrier quarterback has to have those qualities. That's important because when Coach Spurrier has higher expectations for you, he's going to coach you differently and you have to be able to respond to that. That means taking the heat, being good, being tough, being perfect, not making mistakes. We just have to wait and see if Blake can do that. The sky's the limit for him if he can do that."
Mitchell will face greater pressure this season to perform well because, unlike last season, if he fails in that regard there appears to be a capable backup quarterback ready to come in – redshirt freshman Cade Thompson.
Suggs says he's been impressed with what he has seen from Thompson, who sat out last season following a highly successful career at Maryville (Tenn.) High School in which he went 43-1 as a starter, won two state championships and threw for 2,361 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior in 2004.
"I thought Cade Thompson showed some real talent and some ability," Suggs said. "He certainly had some good days. It was obvious to me that Cade Thompson will help us and that he can play."
With Mitchell and Thompson ready to go, Suggs feels the quarterback position will be one of USC's strengths during the 2006 campaign.
"I think Carolina fans going into the season should feel comfortable that we have two quarterbacks who can play," Suggs said. "Coach Spurrier, based on his history, won't be afraid to use Cade Thompson in a game. That's good because last year, I thought with Antonio Heffner, as good a kid as he was, we got afraid in some situations because he wasn't that type of quarterback. I feel real good about the quarterback position."
But, of course, Mitchell isn't the only player who will encounter high expectations this season. A year ago, few knew who Sidney Rice was. Now, after a spectacular freshman season in which he broke several school records and was named the Rivals.com National Freshman of the Year, everyone in college football is aware of his extraordinary abilities catching the football.
Rice put together one of the greatest individual seasons in USC history, catching 70 passes for a school record 1,143 yards. He scored 13 touchdowns, another school record, en route to earning First-Team All-SEC honors.
Rice will have to prepare for constant double teams from defensive backs, Suggs says.
"There's no question people know who Number 4 is now," Suggs said. "They're going to go into the game saying I'm not going to let Number 4 beat me. They're going to design defenses for him. They're not going to let us go to him at will. They will try to force us to do things we're not comfortable doing. Blake or whomever the quarterback is going to have to be able to read coverages, check off at the line of scrimmage and once the snap is made throw it to the right person."
With so much attention likely to be paid to Rice by opposing defenses, it is critical for a second or even a third receiver to emerge to take some of the heat off Rice, Suggs says.
"We have to have another wide receiver step up," Suggs said. "Kenny McKinley is a talent. Noah Whiteside has to step up and play well. This is his senior year. I know he wants to do that. We have some more, as well. O.J. Murdock is a talented kid. We have to throw multiple weapons at the defense to take the pressure of Sidney. He is going to be a marked person. He has to work getting off the double team. People will try to get in his face."
But, of course, the array of offensive talent on display for the Gamecocks this season will be irrelevant unless the team performs with greater energy, passion and intensity. Spurrier has mentioned on nearly every stop of the current Gamecock Club tour that the players must "learn how to compete."
"I know it's bothered Coach Spurrier," Suggs said. "There's no more competitive person in the world than Steve Spurrier, no matter what he does. I like that about him. I like someone who wants to win and never wants to lose. I was also frustrated last year. I was very disappointed in the Missouri game because I didn't feel like we really competed in the second half. Things started going the other way and we stopped competing in my opinion."
The key question is how USC approaches changing the mindset of its players so that the poor effort exhibited in the second half of the Independence Bowl is not repeated.
It means USC must change its culture, its way of thinking, Suggs says.
"Your program has got to be made up of competitive people, a lot of pride and have a history and all," Suggs said. "With Coach Spurrier, we're getting there."
With two recruiting classes under his belt, Spurrier is beginning to mold the program into his own image, that is one filled with players who care about winning and losing as much as he does.
"The thing I like about Steve Spurrier and his staff is if (you doesn't want to compete), there's probably not a place here for you," Suggs said. "You can be a great athlete but if you don't want to win, if you don't want to compete, if you don't want to fight like a Gamecock is supposed to fight, then there's a chance you shouldn't be here. Coach Spurrier wants players who have passion. Because he has it and all of the fans have it."
There are some people who say that mostly by the sheer force of his personality, Spurrier willed the Gamecocks to seven wins in 2005. The same may be true this season.
"I think we'll be better this season because I don't think Coach Spurrier will allow it to be any other way," Suggs said.
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