By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
Two things were clear Saturday at South Carolina's Fan Appreciation Day: The thousands of fans who flocked to Colonial Life Arena were big Gamecock fans (well, most of them), and they are excited and optimistic about South Carolina football.
"I'm looking at the schedule and I think we can win eight games, at least," said Terry Davis, a long-time fan from Sumter. I'm looking for eight or more. "
"9-3," said Rob Hill of West Columbia. "We've got some players coming and we've got more motivation instead of coming in with our coach leaving at midseason. … We've got a coach who has been here for a full season who has got a system that they know now. He's going to do a good job."
Sheldon Jones, whose son Ulric plays on the defensive line for South Carolina, is even more optimistic.
"I'm shooting for undefeated," said Jones, who was wearing his son's No. 93. "I'm aiming high, but I wouldn't mind going 8-4."
A few thousand fans showed up at Colonial Life Arena to meet South Carolina football players, as well as athletes from the Gamecock soccer, volleyball and swimming & diving teams.
"I come to support all of them," Jones said. "I the support all the teams and all the fans, the students, the swim team, the soccer team, the basketball team. I love all the sports."
A native of Oxford, Ala., Jones knows some of his son's teammates, players like Dante Sawyer, Taylor Stallworth and Keisean Nixon, Ulric's roommate. Most of them call him "uncle," he said.
"I feel like I'm a Dad to all the kids," he said.
John Holladay, a lifelong fan from "across the river" in Columbia, stood in a long line to get an autograph from quarterback Jake Bentley, his favorite player.
"Who else?" he said. "Now I'm going to get everybody else I can."
Holladay, 60, is wearing a gray Jadeveon Clowney jersey as he rushes from Bentley's group to get in line to meet the Gamecock offensive line. He's anxious to see how the Gamecocks will do in Muschamp's second season.
"That's the $64,000 question," he said. "This team could be 4-8 or 8-4, I don't know. When you have 110 players total and 77 are freshmen and sophomores, that's like rolling the dice.
"You have to remember, it took Frank Martin … He went through two bad years, and so did Dawn Staley. And last year without Bentley, there's no way we win six games. … It's a slow process. But it beats a quick-fix. We have tried to quick-fix it too many times around here and it has always failed."
Most fans were decked out in a wide assortment of Gamecock hats and shirts.
Then there was Joseph Richey, who stood out because he was wearing a bright orange Clemson national championship shirt.
The brave Richey, from Gaston, S.C., was with a group of kids and their grandmother. Half of them were Gamecock fans, but Richey and 8-year-old Dion Russell were wearing Clemson colors.
Richey was trying to get a Gamecock poster signed for his uncle, a Gamecock fan who lives in North Carolina.
"They conned me into coming here," he said. "I don't even want to here, honestly."
Richey and Russell, who was wearing a Clemson hat, went through the autograph line for defensive backs, but only five of the 10 would sign for him.
"They joked around and tried to make me take off my shirt in order to get it signed," he said. "Cocky wouldn't even sign it. I had to give it to (his niece, a Gamecock fan) to get it signed."
"Cocky took off my off and ate it," the 8-year-old Russell said.
Russell's grandmother, Brenda Croom, or Mimi, is a Gamecock fan. "Forever and ever, Amen," she said. She is excited to see how the Gamecocks will do this season.
"They are going to do awesome," said Croom, a Gamecock fan since 1974. "They are going to win every game."
"They are going to beat Clemson's butt," one of her grandkids yelled.
Richey said his family is at odds on football game days. "It's a house divided," he said.
He was still reveling in Clemson's national championship.
"I wasn't sober," he said, "but when they won, I was sober I got so excited."
Richey said Gamecock players were giving him a hard time.
"They kept asking me why I was pulling for Clemson, and I told them because y'all ain't won," he said.
Most fans in attendance believe that will change this season.
"I think our depth in our offense is much better," said Chris Bomar of Columbia. "We've got good wide receivers, and I like the way our defense is looking. If that secondary can keep the ball from going down the field, I think we can hold our own this year."
Davis is excited to watch new running back Ty'Son Williams, a Sumter native who lived with him for a while.
"I'm excited to see Ty'Son and I just want to see all of them guys do well," he said. "I just want the Gamecocks to win. I'm a fan, win, lose or draw."