By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- He's disappointed but not despondent;
guarded, yet full of hope; enthusiastic but careful enough not to
set himself up for another large crash.
For Steve Spurrier, bringing South Carolina from the middle of
the pack to the top of the Southeastern Conference has been as much
about balancing emotions as finding an offense that clicks the way
the head ball coach is used to.
"Historically around here, we beat ourselves a lot," Spurrier
said. "And I haven't changed it yet. I'm going to try and do my
best to change it this year."
That seems harder to accomplish than it did a summer ago.
Then, the Gamecocks were coming off three straight victories,
including Spurrier's first win over state rival Clemson. They'd won
a bowl game and Spurrier crowed loudly and often about South
Carolina finally competing with the SEC's big boys: Florida,
Georgia and Tennessee.
For half the ensuing season, Spurrier looked like the "evil
genius" of old, and the Gamecocks rose to No. 6 in the country off
a 6-1 start.
How cocky was Spurrier? He joked to media that the usual
celebrations held when the team qualified for a bowl game were
being postponed for a bigger achievement.
Turns out Spurrier shouldn't have smirked so soon.
One game later the Gamecocks inexplicably lost at home to
Vanderbilt -- a team Spurrier was 14-0 against -- to start a
five-game slide and a 6-6 finish. Gone was the bowl bid and
Spurrier's talk of the top.
"We started off hot last year and people jumped on the
bandwagon," said Kenny McKinley, South Carolina's record-setting
receiver. "We let them down."
The losing streak had some wondering if a frustrated Spurrier
might wave goodbye to South Carolina the way he left the NFL's
Washington Redskins after two disappointing seasons.
That's not what Ellis Johnson heard when Spurrier was shopping
for a new coach to head the defense.
"I thought there was disappointment," said Johnson, now South
Carolina's first-year coordinator. "I thought there was
determination, and I thought there was enthusiasm."
"He's been a winner all his life," Johnson said. "Guys like
that don't accept mediocrity. Nowhere in our discussions have I
sensed any resignation or any kind of doubt. He's fully
Spurrier knew his three-year program wouldn't move forward
without change. Johnson replaced Tyrone Nix on defense (following a
five-week appearance by coaching nomad Brian VanGorder), and
brought energetic Ray Rychleski in from Maryland to shore up
The hires allow Spurrier to do what he loves the most: immerse
himself in the quarterbacks and his offense. Slowly, Spurrier has
turned the page on last year's failures.
"We got hope, we got hope that can happen," Spurrier said.
"We got hope if we can play smart and play with a little more
effort and get a few more loose balls, those kind of things."
Spurrier's excitement starts with new quarterback Tommy Beecher.
Although the junior has thrown just 25 passes in college, Spurrier
named him starter and has confidence Beecher could end the coach's
trademark QB shuffling.
McKinley, who caught a record 77 passes last year, should have
another stellar season and South Carolina's offensive line is
deeper and more experienced.
One problem area could be running back, where South Carolina's
toughest and most dynamic rusher, Cory Boyd, must be replaced.
Senior Mike Davis will head the way, although he managed a little
more than half of Boyd's production last season (518 yards to 903).
Johnson inherits a defense that should be vastly improved from
last season when the Gamecocks finished ninth in the SEC.
Star linebacker Jasper Brinkley is back from a knee injury that
cost him the last eight games of the season. The Gamecocks also
have standouts in linebacker Eric Norwood, safety Emanual Cook and
cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
Spurrier said the Gamecocks are putting the past behind them
although McKinley thinks last year's flop won't be far from the
players' minds as motivation.
"We are going into every game focused on that," McKinley said.
"Finish. That is all there is to it."