By Joseph Person, Columbia (S.C.) State
April 21, 2003 COLUMBIA There weren't enough hours in the day for South Carolina this spring. Consider the Gamecocks' to-do list: Install a new defense. Make some changes in the offense. Find a quarterback. Find a tailback. Find a couple receivers. Adjust to eight assistant coaches who were either new or had new responsibilities.
Now, here's the catch: Do it all within the NCAA-allotted 15 practices. No wonder USC coach Lou Holtz promised before spring drills began that we'll be practicing longer than we ever have.
Holtz was true to his word, rearranging the Gamecocks' spring routine so the majority of practices took place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, when there were would be few if any class conflicts. USC went well over two hours most days and was still hitting hard right up to the 15th and final practice, which was held five days after the spring game.
It's the last chance, Holtz said. We'll bring the bloodmobile by and make sure we got the last drop.
Despite Holtz's Red Cross reference, the Gamecocks actually stayed relatively healthy during an important spring. And by and large, Holtz was able to check off most of the items on his spring cleaning list, although the 66-year-old coaching veteran couldn't resist his usual poor-mouthing.
We aren't a real good football team right now, Holtz said near the close of spring, but I've been pleased with the attitude. I've been pleased with the way they work. Our execution isn't always the best, but we're playing smart.
Holtz's chief project was making over the defense, which played an odd 3-3-5 scheme the last three years to take advantage of the Gamecocks' plethora of strong safety-outside linebacker types. But even before defensive coordinator Charlie Strong left for Florida, Holtz had decided to scrap the three-man look up front, which he felt was too passive and couldn't produce a consistent enough pass rush.
So Holtz called on two of his old Arkansas assistants to help him install a traditional 4-3, flying to Tampa to meet with Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin (also formerly of N.C. State) and then to Los Angeles to confer with Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll. Then Holtz took the unusual measure of coaching a position this spring, taking over the Gamecocks' safeties and spending virtually all of his time on the defensive field, leaving his son, offensive coordinator Skip Holtz, to oversee the offense.
The safeties weren't sure initially what to make of Holtz, who would jump into drills and animatedly make his points. Overall, the defense seemed to take well to the transition to the 4-3, the scheme new defensive coordinator Chris Cosh used during his two previous one-year stints as coordinator, at Illinois and Michigan State.
Defensive ends George Gause and Moe Thompson, both returning starters, had to be most pleased with the new four-man look. No longer were Gause and Thompson subjected to the double-team blocks they faced when the Gamecocks rushed only three people.
Thompson, a member of the SEC's all-freshman team last year, had a monster spring game, batting down two passes, assisting on two sacks and finishing with seven tackles. Thompson, a former Mr. Football in South Carolina, could be the impact player the Gamecocks' defense lacked last season, when they finished with only 15 sacks.
With three down linemen, it was like two blockers on one, so (the new scheme) was easier for us to get out of our rush lanes, Thompson said. I like the defense way better than last year.
Holtz didn't like the situation this spring with his linebackers, which was supposed to be a strength. After returning starters Jeremiah Garrison (pectoral strain) and Lance Laury (arthroscopic knee surgery) missed the majority of spring practice and Ricardo Hurley (ankle) sat out the spring game, Holtz questioned the toughness of the group.
You've got to be there on a consistent basis, and our linebackers get hurt far too often, he said. Maybe they aren't durable enough or tough enough or physical enough. I don't know what the answer is. I'm just telling you I'm concerned about linebackers, because that's where toughness starts on defense.
Holtz was particularly disappointed with Garrison, even threatening to revoke his status as captain. The coach has used these psychological ploys before, with mixed results. His benching of fullback Andrew Pinnock for a fumble in an August scrimmage last year ruined the senior's confidence.
Skip Holtz didn't have as many dealings this spring with his father, who has insisted he will mettle less in his son's play-calling. Said Skip Holtz: Personally, I would like to open things up more than we have.
To that end, the younger Holtz visited with Texas Tech during the offseason to study the Red Raiders' wide-open passing attack, while sending line coach Dave DeGuglielmo to West Virginia to check out Rich Rodriguez's one-back rushing scheme. Tech coach Mike Leach and Rodriguez, formerly of Tulane and Clemson, are considered two of the most innovative teachers of the passing game in all of college football.
Then the Gamecocks set about finding some skill-position players who could make their spread offense click. They may have discovered one in converted cornerback Taqiy Muhammad, easily the biggest surprise of the spring. Muhammad, who caught seven passes for 149 yards after starting five games at corner in 2002, should help take some of the pressure off sophomore Troy Williamson, USC's lone deep threat a year ago.
The quarterback situation is in much better shape than last fall, when Lou Holtz tried to jam a square peg into a round hole before conceding in the 11th week that Corey Jenkins was really a free safety. Incumbent Dondrial Pinkins made it through the spring without an interception, while junior college transfer Michael Rathe had a strong command of the offense by the Gamecocks' 12th practice. Pinkins will open the season as the starter, but Rathe showed he should be a capable fill-in if necessary.
Said Lou Holtz of Pinkins: Fundamentally, he can be better. But he just has an awful lot of talent. He's a deceptive runner. Pretty quick release, strong arm, very accurate.
Tailback Kenny Irons should be commended for putting together a solid spring, especially when all anyone in or around the program wanted to talk about was the pending arrival of Demetris Summers, a Parade All-American from nearby Lexington High. Most think Summers will step into a starting role if he's eligible. If not, Irons looked like he could at least be serviceable after an ordinary freshman season.
But after the Gamecocks lost their last five games to finish 5-7 and miss a bowl game for the first time in three seasons, Holtz wanted to wipe the slate clean for Irons and everyone else.
Nobody has any money in the bank. What you did last year, that's not relevant right now, Holtz said. All I know is what's happened since I started spring practice.
That turned out to be quite a bit.