COLUMBIA — The fans crowded three-deep around the defensive line drill Friday night at South Carolina’s first practice. At least 500 spectators showed up here in the shadow of Williams-Brice Stadium, some standing in the beds of their pickup trucks outside the practice field’s fence, drinking beer as they watched. Many bunched around the defensive linemen, the crowd and its anticipation held back only by a thin rope.
All-American end Jadeveon Clowney gave them what they came to see.
He plowed into a blocking sled, pushing it up and flipping it over onto the grass. The fans roared. They hadn’t seen him perform in person since New Year’s Day, and his national arrival moment, the now-ubiquitous, helmet-popping hit in the Outback Bowl. And they won’t get to watch him actually play until the Aug. 29 season opener against North Carolina at Williams-Brice.
Between Clowney and the Gamecocks’ preseason No. 7 ranking in the USA Today coaches’ poll — their highest ever — an undeniable buzz surrounds this team, even more so than last August, when they came off the first of two straight, program-best 11-2 seasons.
Friday’s Day 1 crowd was bigger than last year, the hopes higher for a first ever Southeastern Conference championship, after the Gamecocks debuted in the league title game in 2010.
“It’s been very similar the last three years,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said of expectations. “It’s a very similar feel. You want your expectations up there. You want the guys to expect to have a good team. (No. 7) is a good place to start. You can go up or down. Up is toward one, isn’t it?”
The Gamecocks can certainly count themselves among college football’s elite programs, at least based on recent success. Before they can ascend higher and chase achievements previously unthinkable for a program with a modest-at-best history, there were the usual rites of Day 1.
Two sophomores, receiver Shaq Roland and tight end Jerell Adams, missed practice because of academic shortcomings. Spurrier hopes they will return tonight. One true freshman, offensive tackle Na’Ty Rodgers, announced his presence by exchanging (and landing) punches with defensive tackle Deon Green — as legitimate a fight as you’ll see on a football field.
“I think it shows he has some man parts about him,” quarterback Connor Shaw said of Rodgers. “I was impressed with it and I think everybody else was impressed with it, an 18-year-old kid coming out here and showing what he has. I love it. I love having guys up front like that.”
There will be time to wring hands over the machinations of playing both Shaw and Dylan Thompson. There will be hours spent hashing out position battles like Jordan Diggs and Sharrod Golightly at spur outside linebacker, and Kadetrix Marcus and T.J. Gurley at strong safety.
(What’s clear now is that Marcus and Gurley will remain at strong safety, with Marcus ahead for the moment, and former strong safety Brison Williams is locked in as the free safety, said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.)
Day 1 was about letting anticipation boil over, about celebrating expectations, about holding a sign, as one fan did, that read: “THE MAGIC IS BACK IN GARNET & BLACK.” And for USC’s players, it was about managing all those emotions, outward and inward, and beginning the methodical preparation for the three-month pursuit of history that lies ahead.
“We really don’t pay too much attention to the hype,” Shaw said. “I know we have high expectations. But we embrace it.”