COLUMBIA -- With South Carolina's Garnet and Black Spring Game less than a week away, the sense around the Gamecocks' football team is one of relief. With spring practice about to conclude, hopefully it will be a rest from the disciplinary nightmares that have kept popping up.
It affects the whole team, even when individuals are far away from the troublemakers. It's why guys like locals Spencer Lanning and C.C. Whitlock have stuck to getting better during the sessions, instead of sucked into the negative publicity.
"I'm just out here trying to improve," Lanning said recently. "I've got a new position coach and I just want to play."
Lanning will begin his third season in August but have three years of eligibility remaining. He's still the backup punter to incumbent Ryan Succop, who will enter his final season in August, but is hoping to give the heavy-legged senior a run for his money.
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Succop has handled kickoffs, field goals and punts for the past two years, but new special teams coach Ray Rychleski may shake that up. The coach has praised Lanning's work ethic and said he doesn't want to tire out Succop before the season ends, which would require some help.
Lanning, who only got on the field twice last year, could be the answer, although he quickly pointed out he hasn't been promised a role -- yet.
"Coach Rychleski's a hard one," Lanning said, "but he's giving everybody an opportunity and sticking to his word. I still have to compete with Succop pretty much every day I come out here. I've done all right ... I just wish I would have done better."
The only other kickers on the roster are fellow walk-ons Nate Spurrier and Steven Huegel. Scholarship kicker Ryan Doerr, a freshman from Texas, will arrive in August.
Lanning, who shared jersey number 87 with tight end Alex McGrath for two years, has switched to No. 34 after McGrath, a senior, requested a solo jersey. Lanning's father, Tad, pointed out Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker wore 34, and Lanning realized the number is his number at York Comprehensive High School (17) doubled.
"We've gone from running back to backup punter," he joked. "But I'm just here to play ball. Hopefully this year I'll get to."
Whitlock, a freshman from Chester, enrolled in January and immediately made his presence felt. A jack-of-all-trades in high school -- Whitlock was returning kicks, quarterbacking, and playing receiver and defensive back as recently as December, when the Cyclones lost the Class AAA state championship at Williams-Brice Stadium -- the prospect has been placed at receiver.
He also switched his number midway through the spring, ceding his high school "3" to regarded freshman defensive back Akeem Auguste and donning No. 12. Whitlock wore 12 during his first year at Chester and gives Gamecock fans a familiar number to watch, considering quarterback Blake Mitchell wore it for five years.
"Coach (Steve Spurrier) told me I can be a Kenny McKinley-type if I get better," Whitlock said. "He's 11, I'm 12."
High praise, since McKinley is poised to become USC's all-time leading receiver in 2008. But Whitlock has been playing well, stepping into a backup role but impressing with his quick ability to pick up Spurrier's diverse routes.
"I ain't going to get the big head, but with him being a good guy on the field and off the field ... he's one of the guys I really look up to," Whitlock said of McKinley. "Coach told me if I keep doing what I've been doing, I should get on the field this year as a freshman."
Whitlock was thought to be a natural cornerback coming out of high school, a tag that's stuck with him ever since he played CB as a prep freshman and delivered a concussion-producing hit. But Spurrier placed Whitlock at receiver, where he's shown the ability to get open on a busted play, finding the eye of quarterback Tommy Beecher for a recent 21-yard catch-and-run.
He's also been returning punts, a troublesome spot for the Gamecocks for years.
"Coach told me maybe I'd be the guy on special teams for punts," he said. "To me, I really don't care. Wherever I can get on the field."