COLUMBIA — The most-watched player at South Carolina got just one play at Saturday’s spring game.
And Jadeveon Clowney scored a touchdown.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier had the All-American defensive end run the coach’s annual pass-to-someone-coming-off-the-sideline play. Clowney, wearing sneakers, shorts and no pads, caught the pass from freshman Connor Mitch, but awkwardly slipped as he turned for the end zone. However, the referee “missed” him hitting the ground, and Clowney threw the ball in the stands after the 54-yard touchdown.
Spurrier has always taken a breezy attitude to spring practice and his spring game. There are no real rosters – tight end Jerell Adams briefly led both the Garnet and Black teams in receiving in the first half. Spurrier boosts scoring by having bonus kicks with just a snapper and holder after each quarter and the defenses can’t blitz and are limited to basic coverages.
“Spring practice is important for the younger guys. I guess one reason I don’t get all fired up for spring practice is I only went through one of them in my three years of them at Florida. I got hurt the other two – nothing serious,” Spurrier said of his days at quarterback with the Gators in the mid-1960s.
The Gamecocks are coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons and Spurrier thinks they have the talent to contend for the Southeastern Conference title again as long as hard work follows.
“I think we do have the chance to have a good team,” Spurrier said. “But it could go anywhere to winning season to big winning season to losing season.”
Plenty of eyes will be on Clowney, who is one of the most-hyped defensive players in the country. Clowney sitting out Saturday wasn’t a surprise. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said before drills even started that Clowney wouldn’t be scrimmaging much, keeping with Spurrier’s spring practice philosophy of giving most of the work to younger players. Then the junior’s neck got stiff after a hit just before the last week of practice and the coaches decided he didn’t need to do anything else before the fall.
“Spring is really about learning the playbook,” Clowney said.
Plus, Clowney’s brand of havoc doesn’t transfer well when he is going against his own team. He hopes to make a Heisman Trophy push this year, helped by plays like the one he made on Michigan’s Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl. Clowney knocked Smith’s helmet, and the ball loose. The picture of the play is on the cover of the Gamecocks’ spring notebook.
“A guy that made the hit that keeps on hitting,” Spurrier said to the crowd as he led the halftime awards ceremony, which included Clowney getting the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s best defensive end from Hendricks himself.
Quarterback Connor Shaw also sat out the spring game as he recovers from foot surgery.
Shaw, a senior is expected to share snaps with Dylan Thompson, a junior. Thompson played only one of the 12-minute quarters Saturday, going 6-for-10 for 96 yards and an interception with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Shaq Roland.
Spurrier “told me to expect to play a lot. Whatever that means, it means,” Thompson said. “But I think he has confidence in both myself and Connor that we aren’t going to look at it as a selfish thing. Obviously I know Connor is here, and he knows I am here.”
Elsewhere on offense, the Gamecocks have questions. Spurrier needs receivers to step up to replace Ace Sanders, who left early for the NFL. The Gamecocks also have to replace running back Marcus Lattimore, who also left early after missing half of last season with a knee injury.
Spurrier will likely use sophomores Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds regularly in fall. Davis carried the ball twice, including a 25-yard TD run. Wilds had seven carries for 31 yards.
The tight ends are solid, with Spurrier happy that even fourth string Jeff Homad caught a TD pass. The rest of the offensive line has more questions, leading to the best Spurrier quote of the spring at a practice earlier this month.
“Offensive line has got to learn how to block. They’re pretty good at everything except blocking. Unfortunately, that’s all we ask them to do,” Spurrier said.
Even with Clowney prowling up front, there are questions on defense. The Gamecocks lost all their starting linebackers. It is much tougher to judge any progress the defense makes in spring because Spurrier keeps a leash on the hitting. Freshman free safety Chaz Elder did have two of the defense’s three interceptions, and freshman strong safety Kyle Fleetwood returned a fumble seven yards for a touchdown.
But Spurrier, who suffered through a 14-7 spring game right after he arrived at South Carolina nine years ago, wants to see plenty of offense in his scrimmages. For what it is worth, the Black beat the Garnet 44-30 this year.
‘’Coach Spurrier says, if you have all the fans out here like we had today, they want to see points on the board,” said Ward, who just goes along with Spurrier’s show. “Me, as a defensive coordinator, I hate to see points on the board. Hopefully you saw as many points on that board today as you are going to see all season.”