COLUMBIA — Travaris Robinson does not so much address a room as command it. The instant he steps onto the small riser at the front of South Carolina’s defensive meeting room, the gathering becomes less of a pre-game briefing and more of a tent revival.
“Defense, are we ready?” the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator booms.
“Ready!” comes the reply.
“Defense, are we ready?”
It’s easy to see why the USC assistant is such an effective recruiter. Robinson is galvanizing as he leads his defense through a meeting prior to last weekend’s spring game. On the morning before the culmination to South Carolina’s first spring practice under head coach Will Muschamp, players will meet, meet again, down plates of protein-packed food, and finally amass in one corner of Williams-Brice Stadium before bursting through a cloud of smoke.
But Robinson’s not done firing up his defense, at least not yet.
“We’ve talked about it — game-day attitude,” he says, pacing back and forth. “Coach Muschamp has talked about it — first impressions mean a lot. This (stuff) is on TV. We want to make this look good on TV. We want to make this look like a game.”
It’s a theme that will be repeated again and again — treat this spring exhibition like the real thing. Coaches certainly are, assembling at 7:30 a.m. for a staff meeting in the football building overlooking the stadium’s north end zone. Twenty minutes later, holding a cup of coffee in a styrofoam cup, Muschamp walks through the corridors of Williams-Brice to the other end of the stadium, then takes an elevator up to the large room where he was introduced Dec. 7.
Known as “the Zone,” it’s a banquet facility that on game days serves as a lounge for a premium seating area. But four hours before kickoff, it’s home to the Gamecocks’ pre-game meal — a spread that includes not only traditional breakfast items like eggs, grits, oatmeal and sausage, but also green beans, chicken, pasta and steak, if that’s your dining preference at 8 a.m.
Omelet stations stand in each corner. Players wander in and out, choosing items from two self-serve areas. The mood is a little more relaxed than it would be on an actual game day, when the team would gather in its entirety. But some standards remain fixed — there’s always some type of red meat available, and Muschamp doesn’t want his players focused on their cell phones while they eat. On Friday nights during the season, the team will also assemble for a pasta bar.
At 9 a.m., it’s time for individual unit meetings. Players fan out by position into the meeting rooms arrayed down a hallway on the second floor of the football facility in the stadium’s south end zone, while special teamers head to the field for a walk-through. In the quarterbacks room, co-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper sits at a conference table with his six signal-callers: Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia, Danny Gordon, Connor Mitch, Lorenzo Nunez and Brandon McIlwain.
Orth and Nunez, out with a broken collarbone and hyperextended left knee, respectively, won’t play in the spring game, but still go through all the motions as if they were. Roper tells McIlwain, a true freshman, that he’ll play the first two series for the Black team. He tells Mitch, a rising junior, that he’ll play the first two series for the Garnet. Scarnecchia and Gordon, the latter a walk-on, will be worked in later in the scrimmage.
“Take it seriously, as an opportunity to get better,” Roper tells them, echoing a familiar theme. He wants his quarterbacks to get the offense lined up properly, snap the ball before the play clock runs out, and have the ball at the end of the play. Let playmakers like receiver Deebo Samuel and running back David Williams take it from there, he says.
“We’re going to start in a fast tempo,” Roper adds. “We’re going to try to start really, really fast early on.”
The meeting, just 15 minutes long, picks up speed as well. There is no extraneous conversation as coordinator and quarterbacks delve deep into the jargon of formations, routes, runs, screens and quick outs, with Roper speaking in what seems a language that exists only within the confines of this football environment. Each quarterback jots down notes in a thick binder.
Shortly before 9:15 a.m., someone sticks their head into the room with a reminder that it’s time to break into offensive and defensive meetings. The quiet of the quarterbacks room gives way to the boisterousness atmosphere of the defensive meeting room, where players stand and go through signals led by the coordinator they call Coach T-Rob.
“Let’s do a great job of handling our business,” Robinson exhorts them. He talks fast, and his words fill the room with potential energy. The lights go down, and it’s time for video clips from the two spring scrimmages. Players hoot with delight when they watch a defensive lineman put an offensive lineman on his back. A few motivational scenes from the film “Remember the Titans” bring the meeting to a close.
“OK, guys,” Robinson says, “let’s go out there and do our thing.”
Players head for the locker room, where they will change, get taped and perform their own personal pre-game rituals. A few get stretched in strength coach Jeff Dillman’s weight room, adorned with slogans like “No self-pity in football,” and “The weight room isn’t for everyone, but neither is playing time.” By 11 a.m., many players are on the field, warming up on one half while an alumni flag football game takes place on the other.
As noon approaches, players gather in the corner nearest the locker room, ready to run out out to “2001.” McIlwain, unmistakable in his gold non-contact No. 11 jersey, stands near the front. Fire extinguishers are used to create a cloud of smoke, and players burst through as the theme reaches its crescendo. The next time they go through this routine, there will be a real game waiting on the other end.