South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is typically a guy who brims with confidence, particularly at the outset of each college football season.
He sounded a little reserved Sunday when asked for his expectation of a Gamecocks team that finished 7-6 last season, tying for fourth place in the SEC East.
“When you have a ton of returning players, it’s not that big a deal” to predict a season’s course, Spurrier said at his season-opening news conference. “We just have so many unknown players. Again, some players are very good when the lights come on in the stands. Some other players just don’t perform all that well.
“Any time you’re this inexperienced, you just have to wait and see.”
Spurrier’s misgivings are understandable. South Carolina’s defense was a huge disappointment last season, allowing an average of 30 points and 433 yards per game.
The Gamecocks were particularly ineffective in the pass-rush, totaling just 14 sacks last season compared to 27 for South Carolina’s opponents.
Offensively South Carolina lost key players in running back Mike Davis and wide receiver Damiere Byrd. Thursday night, in the opener against North Carolina at Bank of America Stadium (6 p.m., ESPN), Spurrier will start sophomore quarterback Connor Mitch, who threw just six passes in two game appearances last season.
So, yes, the questions far outnumber the answers heading into South Carolina’s opener.
A year ago the Gamecocks suffered a jarring 52-28 home loss to Texas A&M in their opener. That was the only season opener the Gamecocks lost in their last 15 starts.
While 52 were the most points South Carolina allowed last season, that result was no anomaly. The defense was porous most of the season, leading to Spurrier naming Jon Hoke co-defensive coordinator to reinforce the work of Lorenzo Ward.
“We played pretty well on defense in the preseason. The defense often (beat) the offense in scrimmages,” Spurrier recalled. “You can’t always tell from one game to the next.
“Now I think our defense will represent South Carolina in a very positive way. I think we’ll fly around and be a better tackling team, be in better position.
“We’ve emphasized getting turnovers (more defensively) and taking care of the ball. We were a little careless with the ball and we can’t afford to be.”
Working in Spurrier’s favor, he’s never lost to North Carolina (3-0 as Duke’s coach and 2-0 at South Carolina). Like the Gamecocks, the Tar Heels struggled greatly on defense last season. In addressing that, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora hired former Auburn coach Gene Chizik to be defensive coordinator.
Having coached against him frequently in the SEC, Spurrier is familiar with Chizik’s tendencies.
“We researched a little bit of what Auburn did when he was head coach,” Spurrier said. “But who knows if he’s got some new schemes. We’re expecting some different stuff and I’m sure they expect some different stuff from us as well.
“The days of just lining up in a 4-3 are over. Guys are disguising (coverages) and bringing guys (in blitzes) from everywhere. That’s what college defense is all about now.”
▪ The Gamecocks will wear helmet stickers this season honoring the nine people who were slain at a Charleston church in June. The illustration is of nine doves flying above a palmetto tree.
▪ Former NFL star quarterback Brett Favre addressed the Gamecocks Saturday. He was in Columbia with his daughter, who is being recruited to play volleyball at South Carolina.
▪ Spurrier said a North Carolina-South Carolina series makes good sense for both schools: “I think fans enjoy games against teams nearby. I think the fans see each other a lot during the year, just like we see Georgia and Clemson fans.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell