COLUMBIA — South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw is proud he’s part of school history, helping lead the Gamecocks to their most wins in a two-year stretch.
After consecutive 11-victory seasons and no Southeastern Conference division titles, Shaw said the team is seeking that next step – the phrase they wear on their workout shirts – to bigger things. Shaw, whose 17-3 as a starter, acknowledged the program’s unprecedented success.
“But after two season’s of it, you want more,” Shaw said. “You get a little taste of it and you want more.”
From what Shaw’s seen in offseason workouts, he believes the Gamecocks are capable of winning the SEC Eastern Division for the second time in four seasons. “Our goal,” he says, “is to get to Atlanta. We’ll see what happens from there.”
South Carolina has had nearly full attendance at voluntary workouts, according to Shaw. There’s an added intensity to make the work count as the players close in on fall practice, which begins Aug. 2.
The players showed off their routine to fans in a “Lift For Life” event at the South Carolina Fieldhouse on Thursday night. The team’s younger players took part in “Pigskin Poets,” at the Richland County Library on Friday, reading and signing autographs for elementary school children.
“Everybody’s been here. Everybody’s working hard,” fullback Connor McLaurin said. “We know we’ve got goals and we work every day to get better. When the season’s here, then we’ll get rolling.”
Some expected South Carolina to get rolling to an SEC title much quicker than coach Steve Spurrier’s ninth season.
The Gamecocks reached their first-ever league-title game in 2010 and were overwhelmed, 56-17, by an Auburn team on the way to a national title. South Carolina was favored to return as East champs the next season, but defeats to the Tigers and Arkansas kept them from the Georgia Dome.
The Gamecocks opened last season 6-0, including a 35-7 showdown victory over Georgia that had them on the fast track to the SEC championship game. Consecutive losses at LSU and Florida relegated them to third in the division behind the Bulldogs and Gators.
Shaw wants to end his SEC career playing for a title. The offense has lost playmakers to the NFL in last year’s leading rusher Marcus Lattimore and leading receiver Ace Sanders. The returning players, though, have experience and will be counted on to pick up where the former players left off.
Sophomore Mike Davis and junior Brandon Wilds will be counted on for the yards Lattimore would get in the backfield. Two-sport athlete Bruce Ellington will lead the receivers, which include the brother of former Gamecock standout Alshon Jeffery, Shamir Jeffery.
“Most of them played since they were freshman and sophomores,” Shaw said. “So we’ve got people that understand the game.”
The defensive focus is all on defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a consensus All-American who finished sixth in last year’s Heisman Trophy balloting. He’ll be the main attraction Tuesday when the SEC holds its yearly football media gathering. Then Clowney heads to Los Angeles for the ESPY Awards, where his helmet-popping hit on Michigan’s Vincent Smith at the Outback Bowl is up for Best Play.
Linemate Kelcy Quarles says Clowney’s maintained his poise and focus during workouts in order to help the Gamecocks improve as a defense.
“We know we’re going to have a good team, period,” Quarles said.
The true questions for South Carolina’s defense lie behind the line where the team lost five senior linebackers. The losses in the secondary include safety D.J. Swearinger, who’s hard hits often ignited the crowd and the players.
“Workouts are going pretty good,” defensive lineman Chaz Sutton said. “We’re not really worrying about the season right now, we’re just preparing for camp.”
Offensive lineman Cody Gibson said the players haven’t gotten caught up on expectations, instead setting their goals as high as possible.
“I think we’ve got a great squad right now,” he said. “The defense is looking great. Offense, we’ve got Connor and Dylan (Thompson) at quarterback. I’m really excited this year, definitely.”