COLUMBIA - As Mike Davis walked away from South Carolina's morning practice Friday he was asked by a radio reporter if he was getting fewer carries than one might expect for a starter.
Good question. Davis is a Heisman Trophy candidate but the Gamecocks' exceptional depth includes David Williams, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson.
Davis took it personally, as if someone questioned his football manhood.
"Do you see the shirt?" he asked, thrusting out a muscular chest covered in soaking-wet garnet material.
"Do you see the sweat? That's a lot of work."
They take toughness extra-seriously around here. It's the underrated key to South Carolina's unprecedented run of three straight 11-2 seasons, a mindset brought forth as Steve Spurrier gradually altered the makeup of his coaching staff. Offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Shawn Elliott, quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus and running backs coach Everette Sands are not the only ones but they are snarling examples of hyper-competitive assistants who have inspired a program that once had too many soft spots.
Elliott's energy carries throughout the roster. Mangus was there in Connor Shaw's development every purposeful step of the way. Sands went to The Citadel as a smart and tough player and left with refined leadership skills.
Spurrier knows how to push their buttons. A few weeks ago, he suggested South Carolina's offensive line needed to get tougher.
Never mind that guard A.J. Cann and tackles Brandon Shell and Corey Robinson are NFL prospects on the most talented offensive line South Carolina has ever had. It was a nice little spark for preseason practice, which has been a back-and-forth in which the veteran offensive line has its way with the suspect new starters on the defensive line and vice versa.
In the last scrimmage, the defense got the best of it. When the Gamecocks go at it again Saturday morning inside Williams-Brice Stadium, Spurrier wants to see more progress on offense.
"If the defense has a good day then the offense looks bad," quarterback Dylan Thompson said Friday. "If the offense has a good day then the defense looks bad. You can pick who you want to say had a good day or bad day but we're just trying to work together as a team to get better and that's what we're excited about."
And the offensive line?
"Of course, our offensive line is tough enough to me," Davis said. "I love all those guys up front."
Perfect. If Davis and others are defending the offensive line as the unit keeps stockpiling preseason honors, the toughness message is effectively passed from one South Carolina team to another.
Look at how it has impacted the Clemson rivalry. As former Tigers quarterback Cullen Harper said earlier this week, Clemson in its 2008 victory at Death Valley responded to the real or perceived challenge that the Gamecocks were going to establish themselves as the more physical team.
Instead, Clemson jumped on top and won, 31-14 (Mike Davis' brother James scored three touchdowns). After the game, Spurrier questioned the willingness of some players.
No such questions after the 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 or 2013 games.
"I feel pretty good," Thompson said, summarizing the state of the Gamecocks' offense going into the Aug. 28 opener against Texas A&M. "But we're just working. We still have a little bit before our first game, so we're just trying to get ready for that day."
Amid all this toughness, waiting for that kickoff is the toughest part.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff