July 27, 2006

SEC Notebook: Rice is in good company

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HOOVER, Ala. When coaching at Florida from 1990 to 2001, Steve Spurrier produced several outstanding receivers. At SEC Media Days on Thursday, the South Carolina coach said Gamecock sophomore wideout Sidney Rice is one of the best he's coached.

Rice, a redshirt freshman last season, set South Carolina single-season records with 1,143 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He had 70 catches and was named the Rivals.com national freshman of the year. He was also a consensus All-SEC selection.

"Sidney is one of the best," Spurrier said. "He's a little taller than (former Florida receivers) Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony. (He's) probably not quite as fast, but he's improved his speed in the offseason. Everybody knows about Sidney now. Wherever No. 4 goes, there's going to be a bunch of guys hanging around him. Our other receiver has to step up and play well for us this year."

Spurrier said the main challenge Rice faces now is proving he isn't a one-year wonder.

"He needs to prove he can do it year after year, which I think he knows that," Spurrier said.

How much is too much?

Most coaches in the SEC and probably every other conference have groused about the new 12-game schedule, which leaves room for just one open week.

But Spurrier surprise has a different opinion. Spurrier began his coaching career in the old United States Football League which had an 18-game schedule. Prior to coaching at South Carolina Spurrier was the head coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins, who play a 16-game regular season schedule.

"I think it's easy to play 12 games," he said. "The Division I-AA guys, when they get in playoffs, I think they play 14 or 15. It's no problem for them at all.

"I watch basketball girls basketball they'll play four straight nights at the SEC tournament. I don't hear them complaining that they're playing too much."

Shoring up the defense

Spurrier said he has spent more time working with the defense, a unit that needs an upgrade after being ranked 10th in the SEC in total defense (allowing 360.8 yards per game).

The Gamecocks were especially vulnerable against the run, surrendering 174.2 yards per game to rank 85th nationally.

"I think after meeting with our (defensive coaches) now I pretty much know exactly what we're doing defensively," he said. "Our key now is going to be finding out who the best players are."

One of those players appears to be freshman safety Emanuel Cook, who has made a big impression since arriving in Columbia for summer workouts.

"Emanuel Cook looks like he's going to play somewhere," Spurrier said. "He runs extremely well, he's strong, he's aggressive. From what I hear he sticks out during the running drills."

Asking for a commitment

Summer workouts are voluntary, but not all the South Carolina Gamecocks volunteered.

That rankled Spurrier, who criticized those players who he felt were not committed to the team. He said only about seven players complained about being expected to participate in the workouts.

"Our commitment level throughout the entire team is not good enough," he said. "It's not as good as the other schools we've got to play, in talking to other head coaches."

Spurrier said part of the coaches' job is to convey the importance of those workouts to the entire team to get 100 percent participation, and convince all the players to be committed to improving the team throughout the offseason.

NCAA rules forbid head coaches from supervising summer workouts, but Spurrier knows who didn't participate, and he said there are consequences.

"You don't punish them for missing summer workouts," he said. "You don't have to play them, though."

Getting back on track

Before junior quarterback Erik Ainge can win games for Tennessee he must win over the Volunteers, and he's doing everything he can to accomplish that.

Ainge showed flashes of brilliance two years ago when he set a Tennessee freshman record with 17 touchdown passes.

But last season he shared snaps with Rick Clausen and started just five games. His production fell from 1,452 yards passing in 2004 to 737 in 2005. His completion percentage dropped from 55.1 to 45.5 and he threw only five touchdown passes.

"We saw Erik as a freshman go out there and just play outstanding football," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said on Thursday. "We didn't overburden him a lot. He was at times even managing things at the line of scrimmage that were coming from the bench.

"I saw that comfort level again in the spring. He's not there 100 percent yet. But the first thing he has to do is earn the confidence of his teammates. I've watched him in the offseason, in the weight room. He's leading the sprints. He's working like heck. Every time the door is open he's staying extra, he's doing all the things that win the confidence of your teammates."

That's the first step. The next step is doing what it takes on the field to win football games.

"He's got to play within the system," Fulmer said. "There will be plenty of opportunities for big plays. He felt in the pressure last year to stay on the field he had to make big things happen. That was the wrong way to look at things. He had to play within the system."

Ainge should get positive guidance toward that end with the return of David Cutcliffe to Knoxville. Cutcliffe was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when Tennessee won the national championship in 1998. He helped develop quarterbacks Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning - as well as Eli Manning at Ole Miss.

"David is the finest quarterback coach I've ever been around," Fulmer said. "He has a real calming effect with them. He knows where to pull the triggers and what to ask them to do. I'm really encouraged about David being back for all those reasons."

A nice jump start
After last year's 5-6 disaster Tennessee's first losing season since 1988 the Volunteers wouldn't need any more motivation to get started anew.

But they have it, anyway.

The Volunteers face highly-regarded California, which went 8-4 in 2005 and is No. 17 on Rivals.com's preseason rankings, in their season-opener on Sept. 2. Tennessee is unranked.

"I have a sense, and I've seen it over a number of years, when you play a team like that in the opener the focus in the summer is a lot better," Fulmer said. "That's maybe just human nature.

"You'd like for it not to be that way, whoever you open with. I think with our situation we're coming off last year, the demands that are out there internally, and the opponent are all things that have made a difference for our outlook of things."

Offensive tackle Arron Sears said the importance of that game cannot be overstated.

"California is a great team and that game is important to us," he said. "We have to be on top of our game. A loss for the first game would be devastating for us, especially after last year."

Frogg earns scholarship
Fulmer said that junior Michael Frogg, a walk-on who is listed on the depth chart as the starting center, will get a scholarship.

"He's earned that," Fulmer said. "He will have a chance to compete for the starting position. As we ended spring, (freshman) Josh McNeil not being 100 percent, we felt like it was only fair (Frogg) gets the first shot at the position."

McNeil played in all 11 games last year and started two.

Waiting for a quarterback
Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron named Brent Schaeffer the Rebels' starting quarterback when he signed in February, but Schaeffer still isn't in Oxford and it isn't sure when he'll arrive.

The former Tennessee quarterback who transferred to College of the Sequoias in California still has some course work to complete before he can enroll at Mississippi.

"We've been in touch with Brent daily," Orgeron said. "We have a plan in effect. We think it's going to work. But if something happens that he can't finish on time, if something happens that he doesn't do well in the class or something like that, that could prolong his reporting day."

Schaeffer was taking correspondence courses, but Orgeron encouraged him to return to College of the Sequoias because the summer semester ends in early August. Correspondence courses are open ended and might have prevented him from reporting on time.

Now, there's uncertainty whether Schaeffer will be present when the Rebels report on Aug. 3 or when they begin practicing in pads on Aug. 9.

However, Orgeron said Schaeffer is clearly worth the wait.

"He's very accurate with the football. He can run the ball. He can make things happen," Orgeron said. "He's like defending 12 guys on offense. Sometimes, there's nothing there, he can make a big play for you. He's a play-maker."

No more switching for Lane
Originally a quarterback, junior Robert Lane was moved to tight end so he could get on the field rather than just back up Michael Spurlock.

And even though there is uncertainty about Schaeffer's arrival, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Lane won't move back to quarterback.

"Robert is going to play tight end," Orgeron said. "We plan for him to play tight end."

That's OK with Lane, who caught 17 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown last season.

"I played tight end a little bit last year, a little in the middle of the season, and I was able to work this spring on learning the techniques of the position," he said. "I'm excited about going into camp this fall and competing and not only holding my position, but playing well. I just love playing football so offense, defense, special teams, as long as I'm on the field, I'm happy."

Close calls
Perhaps Arkansas' most memorable game from 2005 was also its most miserable one.

The 70-17 shellacking at the hands of USC stands out most from the Razorbacks' 4-7 finish.

But the Hogs also lost four games by a total of 13 points, and all those close calls might be more difficult to stomach than a trouncing from one of the nation's premier teams.

"It's always tough when you lose," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "When you lose a close one, where you feel like we got the game won, it's hard to swallow sometimes.

"But one thing I love about our team is the ability to get back up. As humiliating as the USC game was last year, I was really proud of the way we went to Alabama."

The Razorbacks lost 24-13 to the Crimson Tide.

"Even though we lost that game in a close game it could have been very easy to let go of the rope right there," Nutt said.

That's nice, but Arkansas fans are more concerned with how the Hogs can turn close losses into victories this season.

"Hopefully, you've learned now how to put yourself in that position to win especially in the fourth quarter and let's go execute, let's finish. That's one of the things we talked about in the offseason, finishing."

The quarterback derby
Arkansas already had two quarterbacks Robert Johnson and Casey Dick who had experience as a starter.

Then, the Razorbacks won the recruiting sweepstakes for high school All-American Mitch Mustain of nearby Springdale, and the depth chart got really interesting.

Mustain threw for 3,817 yards and 47 touchdowns against just six interceptions as a high school senior. When his high school coach, Gus Malzahn, was hired as Nutt's offensive coordinator, it seemed Mustain would immediately be anointed the starter.

That's not the case, said Nutt, who does see value in collegiate experience.

"First of all, Robert Johnson has seven (starts) under his belt," Nutt said. "I feel good about that. Casey Dick has four (starts) under his belt. He finished strong. You have two quarterbacks that actually played in the SEC. That gives me a comfort level."

Of course, both were once in the same position that Mustain is in now, without the same credentials. So, Mustain's chance to be named the starter at some point in the season cannot be dismissed.

Nutt didn't dismiss it.

"We've never had a quarterback like Mitch Mustain that's coming in here from high school with all these accolades," he said. "He'll be given a real look.

"He probably will fee a little more comfortable in the passing game because he's done some of those things from high school that's going to be a natural carry-over.

"Again, jumping from Friday night to Saturday night is an awful big step in the SEC. That's going to be real interesting to see how all that plays out."

Who makes the call?
If nothing else, Nutt's offensive coaching staff is interesting.

He hired Malzahn as offensive coordinator and receivers coach. He hired Alex Wood, who last year coached in the NFL as the Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator, to coach quarterbacks and be the Hogs' passing game coordinator.

Nutt said Malzahn will call plays.

"I'm going to let Gus go. I'm going to turn him loose," Nutt said. "I don't think you can mess with a play caller and veto every play.

"Maybe after a series we'll discuss or maybe it's a timeout and you have discussion between Alex, myself and Gus. But it will go down with Gus calling the plays."

Nutt said there are some misconceptions about the offense and the way his new staff operates.

"One (misconception) is we're going to be in five wideouts, empty (no running backs) and we're going to throw it 60, 65 times a game. I think that's one.

"Two, is that there's animosity or problems amongst the staff with that. That's the two things that's really come out since the time they arrived. It seems like sometimes there are stories that just take off. Nothing is further from the truth."

Click here for more coverage of 2006 Football Media Days.

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