August 14, 2006

Spurrier Jr. has more than Rice at receiver

Steve Spurrier, Jr. never knew what hit him.

As South Carolina's wide receivers coach, he stepped onto the field for USC's first spring practice in March, 2005, knowing only that Sidney Rice had impeccable high school credentials - as a basketball player.

Rice, though, soon proved he was a pretty good football player too.

The Gaffney, S.C. native, of course, went on to enjoy one of the greatest seasons in USC history, finishing with 70 receptions and a school-record 1,143 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Spurrier, Jr. felt like he had just hit the jackpot.

"I've never coached a guy like him in my life," Spurrier, Jr. said. "I've never had a big, tall guy that ran a 4.7. Being an athlete in any other sport helps you."

Because of Rice's impressive freshman season, most people forget the start of his college career was delayed due to a broken left little finger sustained early in fall camp last August that forced him to miss a couple of weeks of camp and the season opener against Central Florida.

Before the injury, Spurrier, Jr. could see in practice Rice was special.

"I knew he had talent because when we started practicing and throwing the ball in the air, he kept coming down with it," Spurrier, Jr. said. "We knew he was a little different."

When Rice finally dressed out for the following week's contest at Georgia, expectations were high. Ironically, it was during warm-ups prior to the game against the Bulldogs at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2004 that Rice sustained the knee injury that sidelined him for the balance of the season, necessitating him taking a red-shirt year.

Because of Rice's early tendency for getting injured, Spurrier, Jr. had little idea what he was about to unleash upon the SEC.

Rice wasted little time showcasing his skills, catching five passes, including a fourth-quarter touchdown from Blake Mitchell that moved USC to within two points, for 70 yards against Georgia.

"I didn't know if he could play or not," Spurrier, Jr. said. "He's tall guy who was a basketball player. Last year at this time, all I knew was he fractured his finger in practice and was out for a month. All I knew was he came out for the Georgia game (in 2004), got hurt, and then was out. I didn't know."

Not satisfied with his first-year accomplishments, Rice worked hard to improve himself over the off-season. It's showed in the first eight workouts of fall camp, as Rice has dazzled coaches and teammates on a daily basis with his incredible pass-catching skills.

"He's bigger, faster and stronger," Spurrier, Jr. said. "He works hard but he worked hard last year. He's getting better every day. When he's in the air he comes down with it."

Rice suffered a broken thumb in March trying to dunk a basketball and missed the second half of spring practice. Still, USC has enforced any type of a no-basketball ban with their All-American wide receiver.

"We like those guys to go play," Spurrier, Jr. said.

Spurrier, Jr has become so intertwined with Rice that USC head coach Steve Spurrier introduced his son as "Sidney's coach" at a recent press conference.

But Rice is far from USC's only talented receiver. Spurrier, Jr. has a basket full this season beginning with last season's second and third leading receivers - senior Syvelle Newton (27 receptions) and sophomore Kenny McKinley (25).

Newton is in the final stages of a remarkable 10-month recovery from a torn Achilles tendon sustained last October while scoring a touchdown against Vanderbilt.

The Gamecocks missed Newton over the final five games of the season, as the offense struggled to generate points at times.

Not surprisingly, Newton's condition has not fully returned. Once it does, he will serve as a nice complement to Rice in addition to lining up in the backfield or as a shotgun quarterback.

"He gets tired a little bit toward the end of the day but physically he's very good," Spurrier, Jr. said. "He doesn't have much of a hitch at all in his quickness or moving around. He looks good."

McKinley is looking to improve as well and become USC's second option at wide receiver. McKinley had a fabulous game at Tennessee (5 receptions, 54 yards) and snagged the winning touchdown catch late in the third quarter at Arkansas before fading a bit down the stretch - he had just five catches for 44 yards over the final three games.

McKinley played quarterback in high school, so last season marked his first as a wide receiver. After a solid start, and an off-season in the weight room, Spurrier expects more production out of the

"(Prior to last season McKinley) never played receiver in his life," Spurrier, Jr. said. "Obviously, he's gotten better. He's bigger, faster stronger than he was a year ago, too. I expect good things from him. He's a good player."

Moe Brown and Chris Hail may both be true freshman but they've shown thus far in fall camp they are ready to contribute this season.

Brown, who also competed in track and field at Westside High School in Anderson, S.C., has impressed the coaches with his speed and quickness.

Hail was recruited as a defensive back before switching over to wide receiver a couple of days into fall camp. The transition appears to have been seamless.

"Both of those guys are doing well," Spurrier, Jr. said. "Moe Brown is a little bit more experienced because he's done a little bit more at receiver. He also worked at receiver all summer. Chris Hail worked at DB and at receiver. We didn't get him until late."

Like most of USC's younger players, Brown and Hail prepared themselves well over the summer for the grind of major college football and reported ready to go. As a result, Spurrier, Jr. is relying on them to produce in 2006.

"Both players are good athletes and they both came in great shape," Spurrier, jr. said. "They were both ready to play physically. Both of them are well ahead of where Kenny McKinley was a year ago. I'm really impressed with what they're doing there. They're learning every day. We're giving them a bunch of reps trying to get them ready to play."

Possibly the most intriguing experiment on the entire Gamecock football team has been Mike West's move from outside linebacker to wide receiver.

West certainly has the speed to play the position, capturing the title of "World's Fastest Gamecock" during the spring in a post-practice match race.

"(West) is my best athlete on paper," Spurrier, Jr. said. "He's the biggest, strongest, fastest. We needed somebody last year. We needed a big, strong guy because Syvelle was out and I didn't know where he would end up. He's a presence. He adds something to our group that we don't have.

Spurrier has no doubts West will contribute at wide receiver this season.

"We've him all spring and pre-season. He'll be fine," Spurrier, Jr. said.

After redshirting last season, O.J. Murdock and Freddie Brown are looking to move up the depth chart this season. Both players enjoyed solid performances in the spring game.

Murdock, a highly recruited receiver from Tampa, seems to have a pep in his step that he lacked last season. He has made several tough catches in traffic during the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills.

"He's done a little better than I expected him too," Spurrier, Jr. said when asked about Murdock. "He's doing well."

One player Spurrier, Jr. has paid scant attention to this preseason is senior Noah Whiteside, who has been suspended for the first three games for undisclosed reasons.

Spurrier, Jr. bluntly says he can't afford to give Whiteside any reps during practice. Instead, he expects Whiteside - who has 32 career receptions - to personally make sure he's ready when the call finally comes sometime after the third game.

"He's out for three games. I told him that I'm not going to get him ready to play," Spurrier, Jr. said. "I'm not going to worry whether he's ready or not. (I also told him) that when your day comes after three games, you'll better be ready to play. That's on you, not me. I've got five guys right now and these first three games are pretty big. So, he's getting no reps at all."

That's the way of the world in major college football.

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