COLUMBIA, S.C. – For the first time in his college career, Mason Zandi was sitting at home watching bowl games during December instead of preparing for and playing in one.
The South Carolina senior offensive lineman has no interest in experiencing that again, calling the idea of not playing in a bowl game “for the birds” on Tuesday. Zandi and the rest of South Carolina’s seniors have seen a wide range of seasons during their careers. But as they prepare for one more go-round at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, they do so with an opportunity to cement one more piece of a positive foundation that coach Will Muschamp has credited them with a lot recently.
“They’ve been great,” Muschamp said. “Anytime you go into a transition having been through this before at times you feel a little push back. ‘This isn’t how the way we’ve always done it.’ That kind of mentality, we didn’t have a lot of that. A lot of these guys were open to change. I say, ‘Change is inevitable, growth is optional.’ These guys have decided to grow with us.”
Throughout this season, Muschamp praised the way the Gamecocks quickly bought into his staff when they arrived in January. This week, the first-year coach praised the South Carolina senior class for being positive and supportive. He pointed to senior quarterback Perry Orth as “our greatest example” of a player not having the senior year they planned for, but keeping any divisiveness out of the locker room.
He spoke at length about his level of appreciation for a buy-in that Orth said happened immediately when Muschamp and his staff took over.
“We knew that he was a good coach and some things just didn’t go his way at Florida,” Orth said.” It wasn’t difficult. He instilled discipline and drive and doing the right things when it’s not going your way and playing with energy and urgency. That’s something that we have taken on as a senior class and the younger guys, too.”
The Gamecocks have reaped the rewards of what essentially was a necessary level of blind trust. They seniors are on the verge of capping their careers with a bowl game – USC needs just one win in its final two games to reach the 6-win mark.
Junior safety D.J. Smith said the success started with an important tone set by the senior class, crediting them with getting the entire team to buy into “the system, the scheme and the coaches.”
“They got us all with the right mindset,” Smith said. “I remember the previous years, people felt like they could do their own things. Not everybody would buy in. I feel like the seniors talked to everybody, brought us together as one and told us to stick together and we could be family. Let’s just see how everything goes. …
“We all just invested our time and effort to go hard every day. I feel like it has been shown this year. We have been playing well. I just feel like we need to get them to a bowl game. They really deserve it.”
The 20 players honored Saturday have seen the highs and the lows of college football during their careers. They had 11-win seasons early on, playing for a Top-10 team and competing for titles. That all came crashing down and they endured a 3-9 season in 2015 that saw coach Steve Spurrier resign and the program sent into a state of turmoil.
Now, they are seeing the other side come through. Zandi glossed over the experiences he has had at South Carolina, calling some things unfortunate and others fortunate. He also used the word fortunate to describe where South Carolina is this season, 5-5 with two games to play but still not satisfied.
But reaching that mark is a credit to players elevating their play to help the Gamecocks go beyond many preseason expectations. It also has seen players not have the roles they might have wanted or hoped for in their final year at South Carolina. As a group, though, it has been about setting a foundation for what is to come next.
Muschamp said he credits the seniors with what “is going to be a lot of fun moving forward.”
“I told our senior class, for some of them, the script didn’t go exactly the way they wanted it,” Muschamp said on his weekly radio show. “But they buy in and the investment that they have made in this program, when we win a championship, which we will, here at South Carolina, I’m going to point back at the 2016 senior class and the investment that they put with our football team and our football program.”
Orth, who plans to enter the business world after this season, is naturally excited for the future at South Carolina. He said the “sky is the limit” for the Gamecocks, a potential he and his classmates helped restore this season.
“We were here for the good times. We were here for the low times,” Orth said. “Now, we are here to lay a foundation for the next staff and I think we have done that.”