October 30, 2007

Tuesday Notebook: Culliver's Travels

Chris Culliver, one of South Carolina's top signees during the last recruiting cycle, is making slow but steady progress in his quest to become a top-flight wide receiver in the SEC.

Culliver made the first start of his career in last Saturday's 27-24 loss to Tennessee. He didn't catch a pass and carried the ball once for no gain.

Culliver is listed on this week's depth chart as a third-team wide receiver for the first time this season, but in Steve Spurrier's view, Culliver isn't ready yet to make the move to an every-down wide receiver.

"He's doing OK but he hasn't really established himself as a wide receiver yet," Spurrier said Tuesday during his weekly press conference at Williams-Brice Stadium. "He's doing well returning kickoffs and we give him a little sweep play or whatever now and then.

"But he's got some work to do to be a wide receiver. He's got the talent to do it, but he needs a full spring practice and summer of playing wide receiver to really be ready to help us next year."

Culliver has not caught a pass this season in his first true season as a wide receiver. He played mostly defensive back and kick returner during his stellar all-state career at Garner (N.C.) High School.

He's carried the ball five times for 32 yards, an average of 6.2 yards per rush. His biggest contribution has been as a kickoff returner, with an average of 24.6 yards on 17 returns. He's broken off a pair of 44-yard returns this season.

Culliver is one of six highly regarded wide receiver prospects signed by USC last February. The group has combined for 14 receptions, 11 by Dion Lecorn. Mark Barnes (2) and Jason (1) have the other three catches.

TRAGEDY STILL BEING FELT: The tragic beach house fire late Saturday night that killed six USC students is reverberating through the entire campus, including the football game.

"It was a terrible tragedy, obviously, for our university and the families involved," Spurrier said. "All of us that are parents have had teenagers go to college. I've had four now. You've got to trust they'll be safe and make good decisions. Who knows how this fire started. It is a terrible tragedy anytime a family has to bury one of their children. We'll remember these students and hopefully we can recover. For the families, it'll be something forever, unfortunately."

Spurrier recognizes the role that the Gamecock football team can play in promoting campus-wide healing.

"Most students here love football, love all the sports," Spurrier said. "Football seems to be the sport that you take personally (and) passionately. We'll do whatever we can. It's certainly not going to bring anybody back, but life goes on. It's very, very unfortunate.

The football team will wear a sticker on its helmet for this week's game at Arkansas with the words "Forever to Thee" from the alma mater. Spurrier said the team may wear the sticker for the remainder of the season.

Spurrier currently has a son, Scott, attending USC. When he was in high school, he made frequent trips to Myrtle Beach with his friends.

"They rented a house, he and all his buddies," Spurrier said. "It's very unusual that something like this happens. Kids go to Myrtle Beach and beaches all the time. Somehow or another, tragedy struck late Saturday night. You just trust they make good decisions, stay out of trouble and so forth."

ISAAC STILL HURTING: Defensive back Brandon Isaac suffered a head injury on Saturday night but appears to be OK. However, a lingering shoulder injury continues to bother him. He underwent surgery last fall to fix the shoulder but Isaac has re-aggravated the injury on a couple of occasions. He missed the LSU and Mississippi State games before returning to action.

"Brandon's still got a bad shoulder that he's had," Spurrier said. "Can he sort of strap it up and play? Our trainers say it's not going to get any worse. Obviously, it's difficult for him to tackle and he plays defense. With a bad shoulder, he's limited to almost just covering guys. Unfortunately, every now and then, he needs to make a tackle. That's just where we are with him. He's one of our best players back there. I think we're going to try and get through these last games before he has to have another surgery on that shoulder."

Isaac has 17 tackles in six games this season. He missed the 2006 season after undergoing season-ending left shoulder surgery in late August. He joined the USC program in 2005 following two years at Georgia Military Junior College.

SPURRIER DEFENDS SMELLEY DECISION: Despite the second half success experienced by Blake Mitchell, Spurrier defended the decision to start Chris Smelley as the right one based upon the statistics.

"We weren't that close," Spurrier said. "We thought Smelley had played the best up to that point. And he had. Statistically, he was our best quarterback. We don't have a lot of excuses around here. He had every opportunity to go play every game, finish every game. It didn't work out, I guess. It wasn't the one interception Chris Smelley threw last week that got him out, it was another play earlier."

Smelley quarterbacked USC on its first three possessions last Saturday night, but struggled, completing three of five passes with an interception that led directly to a Tennessee touchdown.

Spurrier said one of the biggest challenges he faces is to make sure the current group of quarterbacks continues to improve.

"It's been a little different group from most of the quarterbacks I've coached," Spurrier said. "We've just got to keep coaching and believe that they will improve as we go on. Of course, Blake doesn't have many games left to improve, but we've got to keep trying to do the best we can. We try to pat them on the back and tell them the game is yours now."

ARKANSAS STRATEGY: With Arkansas possessing the best rushing attack in the SEC, as well as the top scoring offense in the league, the question arises as to the best way to limit the Razorbacks' point total. Arkansas (30:19) and South Carolina (29:25) are seventh and eighth, respectively, in the SEC in time of possession. USC is third in the SEC in first downs with 187.

"You try to stay out there and make first downs and try to score," Spurrier said. "We've got to trust our defense is going to slow them down. They're by far the best running attack in the SEC. They've led the conference the last couple of years in rush offense."

USC relied on a strong defense to beat Arkansas two years ago in Fayetteville. They held the Razorbacks to a field goal in the final minutes of the first half before denying them on a fourth-and-1 inside the red zone late in the fourth quarter.

"They had a bunch of scoring chances," Spurrier recalled. "They had first down on the 1- or 2-yard line and we made them kick a field goal right at the end of the first half. Even though we gave up a bunch of yards in the middle of the field, we were pretty good right around the goal line. They only got 10 out of it."

If USC plays as well as it did in the second half against Tennessee, the Gamecocks have a good chance to beat Arkansas, Spurrier said. They just have to eliminate the batch of bad plays that ultimately cost them the game.

"We're 6-3 and we need to play well and go win us a ball game," Spurrier said. "We're capable of beating Arkansas. I think we're capable of beating everybody we play. We've got to play a lot smarter. We can't have those careless penalties that we've had."

BUILDING THE PROGRAM: Despite two consecutive losses to Vanderbilt and Tennessee, Spurrier contends USC has made progress, especially defensively, this season over the first two years of his tenure.

"We've made progress with this team," Spurrier insisted. "It may not show up a bunch this year. We were 8-5 last year. I don't know what our record will be, obviously, this year. But as far as the building of our team, we're in pretty good shape. Our defense is much improved. I really believe that. I know that. Offensively, we're about like where we were the first year, to tell you the truth."

A few plays here and there, Spurrier said, and USC could have a better record.

"One fumble recovery or one better throw or one made field goal and we wouldn't be near in the dumps like we have been," Spurrier said. "But we're getting out of it. The opportunity was certainly there the last two weeks. But it didn't work out for us. We didn't play well enough to win as a team. We're not the first team to lose one that coulda, shoulda, so we'll have to accept it and move on. Hopefully, some day the offense can score the last time they touch the ball or score a touchdown in overtime to win a game."

MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Although USC has a two-game losing streak, the Gamecocks have won nine of their last 12 games. . .The ESPN2 announcers for this week's game have not been identified yet. . .Arkansas leads the all-time series, 9-6, including a 5-2 advantage in games played in the state of Arkansas. USC and Arkansas are permanent opponents and have faced each other every year since 1992. . .USC has won two of the last three meetings. . .Spurrier is 4-1 all-time against Arkansas. The only loss came last season in Columbia. One of the victories came in the 1995 SEC Championship game. . .Kenny McKinley, who tied the school record last Saturday for most receptions in a single game (14) and set a career high for receiving yards (151), has now caught a pass in 30 consecutive games, the fourth longest streak in school history. . .The 160 yards rushing by Cory Boyd was the fifth 100-yard game of his career, and the first time a USC running back had compiled 150+ yards since Demetris Summers in 2003. Boyd became the 13th player in school history to reach 2,000 yards rushing. . .USC set a number of team highs during the Spurrier Era in last week's game, including first downs (31), passes (50), completions (34), and time of possession (36:25). The 501 total yards was the highest against an SEC opponent in Spurrier's tenure. . .The USC defense has allowed 17.8 points per game this season, good for fourth place in the SEC. . .The USC defense has held each of its nine opponents to an average of 9.7 fewer points than that team is averaging this season . . .USC is second (153.7 ypg) in the nation in pass defense behind Ohio State and fourth in pass efficiency defense (93.66 rating). . .Opponents have converted just 27.2 percent of third downs this season. . .USC has scored on 27 of 32 trips inside the red zone this season. . .Nine USC players have started every game this season (McKinley, Meredith, William Brown, Sorensen, Cory Boyd, Norwood, Casper Brinkley, Paulk and Munnerlyn). . .Spurrier acknowledged the offense line played "a little bit better" in the Tennessee game. . .Spurrier said the formation where Kenny McKinley lines up at QB and takes the snap from center will "probably" be used again. . .The capacity of Razorbacks Stadium in Fayetteville is 72,000 seats. . .About 2,000 USC fans are expected to attend Saturday's game. . .Arkansas RB Darren McFadden has rushed for 406 yards and two touchdowns on 57 carries (7.1 yards per carry) in two games against USC in his career, including 219 yards last season. . .Felix Jones is averaging 8.8 yards per game. . .Arkansas leads the SEC in rushing by 63.4 yards per game over LSU. . .The Arkansas defense has intercepted nine passes in the last two games. . .The huge Arkansas offensive line has allowed just 18 sacks in the last 22 games.

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