COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier acknowledged the unprecedented run of success may have went to the Gamecocks head this past season.
"Last year we were No. 4 in the nation," Spurrier said this month. "Maybe some of us got a little cocky that that was going to keep happening. We were just going to keep winning 11 games every year and it didn't happen."
Instead, the one-time favorites to win the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division struggled significantly on defense to finish 7-6 — a steep drop from the unprecedented three straight 11-2 seasons between 2011 and 2013.
Those teams were anchored by several first-round NFL draft picks like cornerback Stephon Gilmore, defensive lineman Melvin Ingram and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, chosen No. 1 overall last May by the Houston Texans.
Spurrier thought his returnees were skilled and experienced enough to keep up the winning. That belief was apparent last July when Spurrier wondered publicly why linebacker Skai Moore was South Carolina's only defender picked for any of the all-SEC preseason squads.
It was quickly clear how deficient the defense was when it surrendered a program worst 680 of offense in losing college football's opening showcase to Texas A&M, 52-28. Final quarter collapses in defeats to Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee all followed to hand Spurrier his most losses in a season since 2009.
"Obviously our team wasn't as strong, obviously our defense wasn't as strong as it's been in the past," Spurrier said.
Spurrier, who turns 70 in April, has so far avoided changes on the defensive staff, despite calls from vocal fans on sports-talk radio and Internet message board for wholesale gutting of defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward's group.
The coach has said if there's a chance to add an assistant or two who could help, he'd take it under consideration. He's also said that his assistants from last year are the same ones who orchestrated some of the SEC's top defenses for four straight seasons from 2010 to 2013 and have not forgotten how to do their jobs.
Spurrier believes reinforcements are on the way for a South Carolina pass rush that ranked last in the SEC with just 14 last fall. Top recruits in defensive linemen Dexter Wideman and Marquavius Lewis have enrolled in school and will take part in spring practice.
Wideman was a South Carolina signee a year ago who flipped from his Florida State verbal commitment last February and was arguably the Gamecocks' top prospect. But the 6-foot-4, 270-pound tackle did not qualify academically and delayed his entrance until this season.
Lewis, 6-3 and 266 pounds, played the past two seasons at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas and is considered one of the leading junior college prospects.
"We have help coming in January, and the headliner is probably Dexter Wideman," Spurrier said.
This fall's questions might surround Spurrier's highly effective offense.
The Gamecocks lose quarterback Dylan Thompson, who set the school's single-season record with 3,564 yards, and tailback Mike Davis, who rushed for 2,165 yards and 20 touchdowns the past two seasons. Davis gave up his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
While Spurrier returns experienced runners Brandon Wilds and David Williams next fall, the quarterback job could be the team's biggest sticking point.
Thompson threw all but 17 of South Carolina's 466 passes last fall. Receiver Pharoh Cooper had the next most with eight throws, mostly out of the wildcat formation. Backup quarterbacks Connor Mitch and Perry Orth combined for eight passes, barely seeing time last season.
Spurrier believes the quarterback situation will sort itself out in the spring and summer.
"All we can do is try to learn from it and try to do some things differently," he said. "So we'll do that."
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