COLUMBIA — South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said having one of college football’s top playmakers in Jadeveon Clowney was never a burden for the Gamecocks last season, no matter how big a distraction he seemed to be at times.
Clowney became the center of college football once he popped the helmet off Michigan tailback Vincent Smith at the 2013 Outback Bowl. He drew national coverage that put the affable defensive end – and the Gamecocks – in the spotlight nearly every day.
“We got through the year and he did an excellent job,” Spurrier said.
There won’t be same frenzy swirling around South Carolina when the Gamecocks open fall camp tonight.
In addition to Clowney, the No. 1 pick of the Houston Texans, other high-profile players including quarterback Connor Shaw, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, wide receiver Bruce Ellington and cornerback Victor Hampton are off to pro careers.
Clowney was a major part of the Gamecocks putting together three straight 11-2 seasons. It’s a pretty impressive run for a program that had only once before reached double-digit wins in 120 seasons of football.
To get there again, South Carolina will have to rely on players without much experience.
On the defensive front, the Gamecocks will look to untested players like Darius English and brothers Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr. In the secondary, South Carolina will rely on young cornerbacks like Wesley Green and Chris Lammons to fill in for upperclassmen Hampton and Jimmy Legree at the position.
Linebacker Kiawan Lewis thinks things will play out like last year when the Gamecocks lost five senior linebackers from a year earlier and counted on newcomers like himself and Skai Moore to step up. It was rocky at first, but eventually the youngsters settled down to help the Gamecocks become a top-10 defensive unit nationally.
“We have confidence in those guys up front and know they’re going to play well. We’ll help them do that,” Lewis said.
Spurrier called Shaw the greatest quarterback in school history and it’s hard to argue after he led the Gamecocks to the country’s current longest home win streak at 18 in a row.
But Dylan Thompson, this year’s starter, has had his moments of success – he led the Gamecocks to a 27-17 win over Clemson in 2012 subbing for an injured Shaw – and believes prepared for his moment.
“If I keep working hard, I think we can have a solid offense,” he said.
Shaq Roland, South Carolina’s Mr. Football in 2011, will be looked to take over for Ellington, the team’s top receiver last season.
Still, the question all camp will likely be how the Gamecocks will get along without Clowney.
“I’ve said it over and over,” defensive ends coach Deke Adams said. “We’re going to line up and we’re going to play.”
Maybe people agree.
The Gamecocks were the preseason pick at SEC Media Days to win the league’s Eastern Division and reach the conference championship. To get there, Spurrier knows his players will have to keep focused and working hard.
“I think we’re close to big things around here,” Spurrier said.
There’ s no dispute that Clowney did big things at South Carolina.
There were the national TV cameras at many practices, the fans lined up begging for Clowney’s autograph and athletic department inquiries about whether the junior got paid for signing or wrongly had contact with agents.
And then came several dustups with Spurrier, who quickly grew tired of 24/7 Clowney coverage. He would not let Clowney speak to media for much of the season, the one notable exception coming in October when Spurrier questioned the players’ mindset after he abruptly pulled himself from the Kentucky game shortly before kickoff with an injury.
“It was tough for him,” Spurrier says now. “As I’ve said lately, he did not even have to play last year. He could’ve sat out like a lot of people said, ‘Man, sit out. Don’t get hurt. Don’t risk injury.’ But he said, ‘No, I want to play for my school. Play for my team.”’