When Steve Spurrier arrived at South Carolina in 2005, one of the first items on his agenda was instilling discipline at a program Lou Holtz left in disarray following a season-ending brawl at Clemson.

It took five years to go from mediocre to respected as 2010 Eastern Division champs and now the media’s preseason pick to win its side has a different look entering its 10th fall practice under the man with the visor coming off an unprecedented third consecutive 11-win season.

“We’ve got good team chemistry,” Spurrier said. “That means they all get along with each other. We’ll find out if they can all play very well. They players all like each other. Attitude-wise we’re in good shape.”

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The Gamecocks opened fall practice at the Proving Grounds across the street from Williams-Brice Stadium for the first time in three years Friday without the program’s all-time winningest quarterback Connor Shaw and No. 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney. The return of a nation-leading 85 percent of lettermen however puts the SEC’s most veteran squad into position as a contender.

As for the pressure that comes with being picked to win the division, the Gamecocks’ fastest player Damiere Byrd says his team ignores it.

“It really doesn’t matter to us, because we never really pay attention to what the media’s saying,” said Byrd, one of two senior wideouts. “We always keep our heads on the field and (focused) on getting ready for the season.”

The Gamecocks’ biggest questions during fall practice as they gear up for Texas A&M on Aug. 28 is their new-look defensive line and unproven secondary. Several true freshmen are expected to see early playing time, perhaps starting roles, as South Carolina and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward continue to improve at the back end, making up for the losses of cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree.

“(I saw) a lot of good, a lot of bad, but that’s to be expected,” said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. “But I like how the guys were flying around and they came with a positive attitude. I think there’s a little something different about this team.”

Safety Brison Williams is the team’s only returning starter in the secondary, but worked at first-team cornerback Friday night alongside first-year player Al Harris Jr. Williams worked at corner this spring, so the adjustment period to a new position shouldn’t be as lengthy for the fourth-year vet.

“I’m just working at corner right now, trying to get better every day,” Williams said. “If I need to go back to safety, I’ll go back to safety and do whatever (I need to) for the team.”

Williams echoed Ward’s sentiment about this year’s team having a special makeup.

“We know we don’t have Jadeveon, Vic and all those other guys, so I think the whole defense is trying to earn that chemistry together,” Williams said. “We want to go higher than 11-2 this year, but we just have to keep working and getting better every day.”

Other first practice notes:

  • Heisman candidate and top offensive star Mike Davis was in a yellow jersey and did not practice. The junior’s nursing a minor hamstring injury. Spurrier said he’ll likely start practicing next week. “Those other three backs looked awfully good,” Spurrier said. “Shon Carson, Brandon Wilds and David Williams were fast, flying around. Sometimes those hamstrings linger, but we’ve got good running backs. We’re in good shape there.”
  • Spurrier on QB play: “Dylan (Thompson) looks good. Connor Mitch looked much improved tonight. Perry Orth threw some good ones in there. Brendan Nosovitch actually played a little tight end and quarterback tonight. He’s a very good athlete and we’re trying to find a place where he can get on the field and help us.”
  • Byrd on South Carolina’s front-loaded schedule (four division opponents in first six games): “I think there’s always pressure to be ready out of the gate. Every year we have a great team we have to play opening up.”