From Kentucky for a Thursday night Clemson-Louisville nail-biter, to Spartanburg for a look at the best high school football player in South Carolina, then Athens to see the talent gap between Georgia and South Carolina, and finally on to Charlotte, where the Carolina Panthers depend on Cam Newton’s pain threshold, there were two common themes.
Snapshots from a four-day, four-game, four-state football ride:
Thursday, Sept. 17
Clemson at Louisville
Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium
It’s not a rivalry until one of the teams stops losing. Louisville is 0-2 in its new series with Clemson after a second straight close loss (and 0-3 for the first time since 1984).
A 20-17 heartbreaker at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was ripe for second-guessing on Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
But landing Louisville was an ACC coup. The athletic department with the largest budget in the conference includes Rick Pitino’s basketball powerhouse, former Citadel assistant coach Dan McDonnell’s perennial College World Series contender and a women’s basketball program that went 12-4 against its first ACC schedule.
Bobby Petrino is likely to put the Cardinals back in the national football rankings, too, perhaps at the expense of Clemson and South Carolina. A quick check of player favorite lists will show how aggressively Petrino and his staff have been recruiting the Palmetto State (Louisville was banned from Dutch Fork High School after pulling a scholarship last winter).
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich knows a Thursday night showcase on ESPN helps convey the Cardinals’ brand message to recruits in traditional ACC territory.
“A game like this is phenomenal, but being in the ACC itself is really dictating where we’re recruiting,” Jurich said. “We’ve always been in the Southeast quite a bit, but I think we’re just trying to get into the footprint of the ACC now.”
Louisville already has nice facilities. The next big project is expanding Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium from 55,000 seats to 65,000, partly thanks to a lucrative deal with Papa John’s (reportedly worth $22 million through 2011 and more since).
Petrino has an exceptionally young team, only nine scholarship seniors. His coaching staff has been intact for two years.
Next time in town, the Tigers will have to play better to win.
Celebrity sighting: Former boxing champ Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest.” And Papa John (aka pizza entrepreneur John Schnatter) himself.
Friday, Sept. 18
Greenwood at Spartanburg
A couple of curious middle school kids wearing Spartanburg High School Vikings gear spotted a reporter with a laptop in the press box at Wofford’s Gibbs Stadium.
“You’re here for Tavien Feaster, right?” one of them asked.
“Yes, and popcorn.”
“Well, you might not see him run much. They mostly use him as a decoy.”
Other teams are aware that the 6-0, 202-pound senior running back is the top-rated high school recruit in South Carolina for the Class of 2016. They also know Feaster has won both the 100-meter and 200-meter state championships two years in a row. His 10.42 time in the 100 last spring was the second-fastest nationally, and the 21.11 time in the 200 set a new state record.
All eyes were on No. 1-ranked Spartanburg’s No. 28 on Friday night as the Vikings started at the Greenwood High School 46-yard line after an interception.
Sure enough, on the first play, Feaster took a handoff, flipped the ball back to quarterback Austin Scott and watched Scott throw a 46-yard touchdown pass to Tavaris Scott on a post pattern.
Feaster caught a 39-yard touchdown pass after lining up in the slot.
He added a 55-yard touchdown catch and run.
He took a snap as a Wildcat quarterback.
Then they moved on to the second quarter.
In a 42-7 win, Feaster had six catches for 120 yards and a mere 10 carries for 38 yards.
“It’s been kind of rough because everybody is keying in on me,” Feaster said, “but as long as I’m doing my thing and my team is winning, I’m fine.”
Spartanburg head coach Chris Miller likes the attitude.
“He’s a great kid,” Miller said. “He’s a great athlete. He’s a great person. I’m just so proud of what he’s doing right now.”
After the game, Feaster confirmed his commitment to Clemson and said he will not visit any other schools.
“Yes sir, I’m very solid — 100 percent,” Feaster said.
He eagerly awaits a chance to play in a Clemson offense that includes quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver Artavis Scott and other players good enough to make keying on Feaster difficult.
“I think I’m going to fit in pretty well down there,” Feaster said. “They do a lot of speed stuff, and I’m a speed guy. I can catch the ball out of the backfield and just do the things they ask me to do as a running back. I believe I can handle it.”
Celebrity sighting: Spartanburg celebrated the 20th anniversary of its 1995 state championship. Among the honored former players on hand was Anthony Simmons, a Clemson consensus first-team All-America linebacker. A 1998 NFL first-round draft pick, Simmons played seven seasons for the Seattle Seahawks.
Saturday, Sept. 19
South Carolina at Georgia
South Carolina’s 52-20 debacle Between the Hedges revealed many problems for the Gamecocks, most notably a lack of All-SEC talent and failure to keep up with the best teams in the conference in recruiting.
Amid the rubble, freshman Zack Bailey emerged as a 6-6, 320-pound bright spot. He took over for injured center Alan Knott in the second quarter and snapped a football in a game for the first time in his life.
Bailey’s fellow offensive linemen were there for support.
“Brandon Shell came up to me and told me to calm down. You know, ‘Let’s go,’ ” said Bailey, a Summerville High School graduate. “The same with Mike Matulis, (Mason) Zandi and Will (Sport). They all just kind of grouped around me and said, ‘This is your time to shine.’ ”
That Bailey played well isn’t surprising to anyone at Summerville who saw him block defenders out of the end zone as an All-State guard and Mr. Football finalist. The potential is there, not only for Bailey to make All-SEC on his way to the NFL, but to become South Carolina’s best offensive lineman in decades.
Celebrity sighting: Jeb Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, worked the room at Sanford Stadium. Or maybe the former Florida governor was scouting the Gamecocks and Bulldogs on behalf of the Gators.
Sunday, Sept. 20
Texans at Panthers
Bank of America Stadium
The Carolina Panthers got rid of Hall of Fame-caliber receiver Steve Smith last year partly for financial reasons, and probably because he was too hard on franchise quarterback Cam Newton in the locker room. They thought they answered the void with the selection of Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
Benjamin had a nice rookie year, but when he was lost for the 2015 season with a torn knee ligament suffered during an August practice, the Panthers were left with a group of suspect receivers.
There were lots of drops in the Panthers’ season-opening 20-9 win at Jacksonville.
Newton didn’t complain, and in Sunday’s 24-17 victory over Houston, Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown caught touchdown passes.
“My confidence wasn’t shattered in giving opportunities to guys that are doing what they are supposed to do,” Newton said. “I am supposed to throw them the football and they are supposed to catch it.”
A healthy Benjamin or not, Newton still gets hit far more than any other NFL quarterback, and deserves more weapons around him. For now, the Panthers are stuck with what they have. But Newton’s unselfish play and leadership maturation should make it easier to lure better skill-position help via free agency.
Celebrity sighting: Stephen Curry, the Charlotte native and Davidson graduate fresh from his NBA title run with the Golden State Warriors, was on hand as the designated “Keep Pounding” hitter. Curry slammed a large Panthers drum on the field before the game.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff