The craziness and chaos that makes SEC Media Days so appealing yet amusing to many people is finished for another year. Hundreds of thousands of words were spoken by coaches and players over the course of three days at the Wynfrey Hotel. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has a phrase for this time of the year: "talking season." Along with Gamecock players Connor Shaw, Ace Sanders and D.J. Swearinger, Spurrier made the rounds, often being asked the same questions over and over. What did we learn from the hours of chatter?
1. Spurrier and Shaw are developing a special relationship between coach and player: Shortly before the start of his senior season in 2011, former quarterback Stephen Garcia told reporters one of his goals was improving his frequently fractured relationship with Spurrier. It appears Shaw, though, won't have those same concerns heading into his first full season as the starting quarterback. His excellent work ethic, commitment level and performance on the field has Spurrier breathing a little easier these days.
Frankly, his status as the first USC quarterback to appear at SEC Media Days since Spurrier became the head coach in 2005 speaks volumes about the coach's frame of mind about his junior quarterback. He doesn't take players that he believes will fail.
"I select guys I think are going to represent our university and our football program in a first-class manner," Spurrier said. "That's Connor Shaw. He represents everything we stand for in the right way."
Shaw acknowledged he committed to the Gamecocks largely because of the opportunity to play for Spurrier, and he says he has benefited from the experience in many different ways.
"It's an incredible honor and a privilege to play for him," Shaw said. "It's an experience to enjoy. He has really made me a better man since I've been here. On the field, his criticism has made me better. I've embraced it. He continues to make me better."
2. Marcus Lattimore is healthy, healed and highly respected around the SEC: Running back Marcus Lattimore missed six games last season with a serious knee injury, yet he received the most votes of any conference player in the media's preseason All-SEC team and was a first-team selection on the coaches' preseason All-SEC team. He's also been named to an abundance of watch lists for various postseason trophies, including the prestigious Doak Walker Award. Lattimore is almost 100 percent healed as the start of preseason camp approaches, but Spurrier said the coaches will take a cautious approach with their crown jewel.
"Most people say Marcus is the best running back in the country and I believe he is," Spurrier said. "But these other guys we've got are pretty good, too. Our trainers tell us that when we report on Aug. 3 that Marcus should be 100 percent. That doesn't mean he's going to scrimmage and carry the ball 50 times. We'll protect all our guys like we do in practice. But he'll pretty much do everything at the beginning of practice."
Sanders understands the importance of having a healthy Lattimore on the field as USC seeks to match or surpass last season's 11-win total.
"We have a lot of speed in the backfield, but we still have Marcus Lattimore," Sanders said. "He looks real good. I'm expecting big things from Marcus this year. He runs with us every day and works out with us every day. I just see the same Lattimore before the injury."
3. Expectations for the defense haven't dipped: USC finished among the top three of the SEC in three of the four major defensive categories in 2011, Ellis Johnson's final season as the main defensive play caller for the Gamecocks. USC was third in total defense (267.7 yards per game), third in scoring defense (18.4 points per game) and second in pass defense (131.7 ypg).
Even after promoting Lorenzo Ward to replace Johnson and losing four starters in the NFL Draft, Spurrier's expectations for the Gamecock defense in 2012 remain high for one reason - the defense will subscribe to the popular KISS system in 2012.
"Hopefully, we won't make stupid coverage mistakes and keep it a little more simpler than maybe we have in the past," Spurrier said. "We've had some occasions in the past like the Kentucky game in 2010 where we screwed up the coverage. You have to give your players something they can understand.
"It's either a zone or a man and you have to know your responsibilities. We've hopefully eliminated some confusion among our guys so they can just line up and go play. Lorenzo and I think alike on a lot of things such as coverages, ideas, third down and so forth. I think we're going to be in good hands back there."
4. Spurrier really likes his new group of assistants: Teams that win 11 games typically don't experience a lot of turnover in the coaching staff for the following year. But Spurrier brought four new assistants on board to replace Johnson (head coach at Southern Miss), RB/TE coach Jay Graham (returned to Tennessee), safeties coach Jeep Hunter (fired; then hired at So. Miss.) and special teams coach John Butler (took job at Penn State).
The four new assistant coaches (Kirk Botkin, Grady Brown, Joe Robinson and Everette Sands) have already made quite an impression on Spurrier after just six months on the job.
"Sometimes when you lose a guy, you sort of get upset, but then you find out that maybe I've just hired one better than the guy I had," Spurrier said.
5. USC is finally building a PROGRAM: How do we know? Instead of relying on true freshmen to play right away, the Gamecocks are now building enough depth so they can redshirt most freshmen to give them a year to physically and mentally develop, and get accustomed to the time demands of major college football. According to the roster in the media guide, 17 scholarship freshmen were redshirted last season, including K.J. Brent, Ahmad Christian, Cedrick Cooper, Gerald Dixon, Gerald Dixon Jr., Phillip Dukes, Mason Harris, Drew Owens, Sheldon Royster and Brandon Shell. Every one of those players could be major contributors in the future.
"I remember in '05, '06, '07, '08, we might have had five guys in their fourth year," Spurrier said. "Nobody stuck around much. If you stuck around four or five years at South Carolina, you were something special. You were a good, solid citizen. Now we're actually talking about redshirting guys.
"If you don't play a lot, we're going to redshirt you. We're getting to where we redshirt at least half of them now. We're able to redshirt the offensive linemen. So many came in and played right away when they weren't really ready."
6. Football is a game of mind over matter: Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once quipped, "Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical." Well, the same philosophy applies to football. Coming off an 11-win season, one of Spurrier's biggest tasks is battling complacency and making sure the Gamecocks take the proper mental approach when preparations for the 2012 season begins on Aug. 3.
Spurrier understands USC's history - the 1985 team fell to 5-6 a year after Black Magic. Later, USC experienced two straight losing seasons in 2002 and 2003 following the back-to-back Outback Bowl wins over Ohio State. The Gamecocks have reached uncharted waters under Spurrier, but the key is keeping the ship sailing forward rather than backtracking.
"If you know the history of South Carolina football, after a big year trouble hits," Spurrier said. "Historically, we have not handled success well. South Carolina has not followed up a big year with another big year. Hopefully, we're different, but only time will tell.
"We could fall flat on our face if we don't watch out. We have a lot of good players. But if we're not ready to play, just about everybody on our schedule can beat us. Hopefully, we're smart enough to know that and get ready to play each week."
7. The next game between USC and Ole Miss will be intriguing: According to new Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze (yes, he's grabbed the title of Mr. Freeze away from Arnold Schwarzenegger), USC and Ole Miss are supposed to meet in 2013. However, the SEC is still piecing together the football schedule for next year and beyond, so nothing is official yet.
Spurrier's well-publicized comment that had he been in charge of putting together the SEC schedule for 2012 he would have scheduled Ole Miss instead of LSU (and forced Georgia to face LSU in Baton Rouge) didn't go over well in Oxford, which is dripping Old School SEC.
Freeze's fired back at Spurrier last Thursday: "We will circle that date and maybe change his perspective about what he thinks about Ole Miss football." Question is, will the Rebels be positioned to make Spurrier eat his words considering the lowly state of the program right now? By all accounts, Ole Miss is far and away the least talented team in the league this season, and it could stay that way for a few seasons as Freeze tries to repair the extensive damage from the Houston Nutt regime.
No matter what, the next football game between USC and Ole Miss, hardly storied rivals since they haven't met since 2009, should be interesting with storylines galore, especially if the game is played in Oxford.
For in-depth coverage of Gamecock sports and recruiting, visit GamecockCentral.com.