COLUMBIA, S.C. — Steve Spurrier's confident South Carolina hasn't run out of football talent, even with some of the best in the game off to the NFL.
The Gamecocks coach is entering his 10th year and believes after three-straight 11-2 seasons, his club is prepared for that next step of a Southeastern Conference championship.
"Our guys can play some ball now," Spurrier said.
Spurrier's not alone in that belief. South Carolina was the preseason pick last month to win the SEC East and give the head ball coach a shot at his first league crown since his "Fun-n-Gun" days at Florida.
Still, that might be hard for some to swallow with the top-flight performers the Gamecocks have sent to the pros in recent years including Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Chicago receiver Alshon Jeffery and Houston defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the NFL draft's No. 1 overall pick in May.
Also gone from last year is sacks leader, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles and quarterback Connor Shaw, who Spurrier has said several times is the greatest quarterback in team history.
But Spurrier's not chalking this season up to a rebuilding act. His staff has worked hard to recruit players to fill those openings these past few years and Spurrier believes those players are ready to step into the spotlight.
"I do think we're a school with advantages now," Spurrier said. "We graduate our players, they stay out of trouble and we win. ... And we send them to the NFL. We have track record with all that."
Five Things to know about the 2014 Gamecocks:
For all the success of the past four years, most of the attention at South Carolina focused on Clowney, the 6-foot-5, 266-pound defensive end. From the time he slipped on his Gamecocks cap on Valentine's Day 2011 — his 18th birthday — to his pro day at Williams-Brice Stadium last April, Clowney was the team's larger-than-life character. While Spurrier says Clowney was never a distraction, he likes the effort and attitude of the players back this year. "There's a lot of chemistry," the coach said. "Nobody's standing on the sidelines, nobody was hurt, nobody's pouting."
6-6 sophomore Darius English will take Clowney's end spot with Gerald Dixon, another sophomore, replacing Chaz Sutton. Dixon's brother, Gerald Dixon Jr., will play defensive tackle alongside J.T. Surratt, the only returnee. Defensive line coach Deke Adams can't count how often he's been asked what the Gamecocks will do without Clowney. "We're going to line up and play football," is his blunt response.
One of the few recognizable names for the Gamecocks is running back Mike Davis. He finished with 1,183 yards last season, the fourth best single-season mark in South Carolina history. Davis rushed for 100 yards or more in seven of the first nine games before fading down the stretch with injuries. He's gotten stronger in the offseason, knowing that another 1,000-yard year could make him the next South Carolina junior to jump into the NFL draft.
The Gamecocks will be without quarterback Connor Shaw — up in Cleveland Browns camp fighting for a reserve spot behind Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer — who was the team's starter the past three seasons. Spurrier has heaped on the praise ever since, leaving a big hole for fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson to fill. Thompson, though, is more of a drop back, downfield thrower Spurrier cultivated at Florida and that has fans hopeful of more big plays this season.
Ask Spurrier what he might be proudest of at South Carolina and the current home streak is way up there on the list. The Gamecocks have won a school-record 18 straight at Williams-Brice Stadium. Northern Illinois has a 26-game win streak at its home stadium, but the NCAA considers its loss to Iowa at Chicago's Soldier Field a home defeat and counts its streak at 12 straight wins.