COLUMBIA — Going back to Duke in 1987, Steve Spurrier's had a lot of coaching staffs. Names, faces have changed. Quite a bit, actually.
But Spurrier, a month before season No. 5 even begins at South Carolina, is bold enough to say this is the best staff he has ever had.
"I say that because I've watched these guys through spring practice," Spurrier said of the five new assistants (six if you count strength coach Craig Fitzgerald). "I've watched them interact with the players and recruit."
For the second consecutive year, Spurrier is leaning on new coaches for new ideas.
Last season, Ellis Johnson bolstered the defense and Ray Rychleski revamped the special teams units.
This year, a lot of the changes are related to the offense.
There's a new quarterbacks coach (G.A. Mangus), a new running backs coach (Jay Graham), a new tight ends coach (Jeep Hunter) and a new offensive line coach (Eric Wolford).
In a way, the coaches are teaching the Old Ball Coach new tricks when it comes to his offense.
No longer consumed with the idea of funning or gunning anyone, you can see the desire he has to run the ball.
A couple of weeks ago he said he's hopeful the Dixie Chicks song "Ready to Run" is an apt anthem for the 2009 Gamecocks.
Wolford is perhaps the name fans have gotten most familiar with this spring and summer months.
In addition to the line coach, he'll double as the running game coordinator. If those areas improve — South Carolina was last in the SEC in rushing last season — it could open things up for Spurrier's mind.
"We believe we're going to improve because we weren't very good last year," Spurrier said of the line. "I'm not saying it was coaching; I'm just saying we got beat up a little bit. We didn't block very well. Hopefully we'll be better. We believe it's going to be better."
It's Hunter's first venture into the SEC after several college stops throughout the Southeast. Graham was a 1,000-yard rusher at Tennessee in the mid-1990s.
"I do have a group of terrific assistant coaches, all over the field," Spurrier said Sunday. "Jay Graham and Jeep Hunter are two sharp, excellent coaches. I've really been impressed with both of those guys."
It might mean a little more to Mangus to hear Spurrier say this is his best staff.
"It's pretty cool for someone who's in my shoes," Mangus said.
After all Mangus played for Spurrier after Florida when the Ball Coach arrived in the Swamp in 1990.
He hung around to work as a grad assistant — yes, G.A. was a G.A. — and then patterned his own coaching career on what he'd learned from Spurrier.
And now he's using it with Spurrier.
"To be part of this, obviously I was very excited when he hired me," said Mangus, previously the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State with former South Carolina and Clemson assistant Rick Stockstill.
"For somebody who was there close to the beginning, and then to get called back, it's great. I'd never hid the fact that this was a phone call I was one day hoping to get."
In the discussion of all the new offensive coaches, don't lose sight of the defense's addition.
Johnson wanted to bring longtime right-hand man Lorenzo Ward with him last season when he left Arkansas. Things didn't work out then, but they did this offseason.
He'll have the title of defensive coordinator, working just under Johnson's control as the co-head coach in charge of defense.
He'll directly work with the Gamecocks' cornerbacks and free safeties, while Shane Beamer moves to take over strong safeties and the spur position.
Ward is perhaps best known for his work with Virginia Tech's cornerbacks from 1999-2005.
The new coaches are just part of the bigger picture of improved team chemistry.
"Right now, we all like each other," Spurrier said. "Coaches like coaches, coaches like players, players like coaches, players like other players. That's what you've got to have.
"Everybody's got to be on the same team. Pretty simple stuff right there. I'm not so sure we were at the end of last year. We weren't as close of a team as we needed to be."
But the chemical balance of a group isn't truly tested until adversity arrives.
What about then? What about if the Gamecocks drop two or three in a row?
Is this still Spurrier's best staff?
"That's true," Spurrier said. "You still have to play the games."
That part begins Sept. 3 in Raleigh.
Spurrier said prospect Ben Axon was not admitted to South Carolina. Axon is looking for another school, Spurrier said, adding he expects DL Leon Mackey to be here this week. ... Spurrier said it's a legitimate three-man battle for center, between Garrett Anderson, Lem Jeanpierre and Seaver Brown. ... Aramis Hillary and Reid McCollum are "pretty close" for the backup QB job, Spurrier said. He'd demoted McCollum to No. 3 after a poor practice Saturday.
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