This is the second of a two-part interview with USC strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. To read the first part, click here.
Steve Spurrier has been one of Stephen Garcia's most vocal critics the last three years.
But over the last couple of weeks he has sung a different tune, praising his fifth-year senior quarterback for "chang(ing) his lifestyle almost completely" and saying he expects Garcia to have a fantastic final season in garnet and black.
But Spurrier isn't alone in his acclaim for Garcia, who enters the 2011 season with 6,753 passing yards and a completion percentage of 58.5 (528-for-903) in his career.
Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald has been equally complimentary of the effort put forth by Garcia since summer workouts started eight weeks ago.
"The proof will be in what he looks like on media day," Fitzgerald told Gamecock Central Thursday in an exclusive interview. "He's leaner than he's ever been. He's in better shape than he's ever been. He's stronger than he's ever been."
In order to assure Garcia reached his personal goals, Fitzgerald had him run sprints with the Gamecock receivers during all of the conditioning drills.
The strategy paid off handsomely.
"I told him before the summer that if he wants to lead this team, he had to show the guys how hard he was willing to work," Fitzgerald said. "He said he would. Every time, he ran with the receivers. He's 230 pounds and he ran as hard as he could to keep up with the Bruce Ellingtons and the Alshon Jefferys. He wanted to stay close to them and he did. He really improved himself. He didn't have a good summer, he had a great summer."
Once the conditioning work was done in the morning, Garcia organized most of the afternoon seven-on-seven drills. Because of the fresh leadership he displayed, Spurrier and the offensive coaches feel Garcia is primed for a superb senior season.
After silencing the skeptics by qualifying under NCAA standards, highly touted freshman Jadeveon Clowney joined the program in early July and immediately went to work. The young defensive end The Los Angeles Times described in a recent story as a "cyborg" quickly impressed his teammates with his work ethic and, of course, his off-the-charts physical skills.
"Jadeveon is a natural football player. He came right in and he met expectations," Fitzgerald said. "He had a very good month. He looked pretty good. He worked hard and did everything we asked him to do. He's strong. Right now, he's in great shape. He should have an outstanding freshman year."
Running back Marcus Lattimore weighed 232 pounds when summer workouts ended and should be in the best shape of his life as he begins his much anticipated sophomore season after rushing for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2010. When last season concluded, Lattimore vowed to add weight to his 6-foot frame to turn him into a more durable player.
"He's in great shape," Fitzgerald said. "He looks as good as he ever has. He improved in power and strength during the winter time and the summer was for getting in the best shape possible and being able to handle the long haul. He looks great right now. Hopefully, by the end of the season he'll look even better. His main goal was to add some muscle and he has."
Another "very nice" addition, Fitzgerald said, has been sophomore Bruce Ellington, who will attempt to play two major sports during the 2011-12 academic calendar. As soon as football is over, he'll transition to basketball. For now, his focus is on football and everything he did during the summer furthered his goal of securing significant playing time in 2011.
"Everybody loves Bruce," Fitzgerald said. "He has a high energy level and he really runs hard. He was always in the top five in conditioning whenever we ran. He really works at it. He's a great kid."
Following his arrest for DUI on June 18, spur linebacker DeVonte Holloman was briefly prohibited from working out with the team, Fitzgerald said, before being permitted to re-join the workouts.
"There was a time when he wasn't allowed to (work out), then he was allowed to after that," Fitzgerald said. "There was a brief period when he wasn't allowed (to work out), but it was only for a few days. DeVonte is a great kid and he's all business. He wants to be a great player. He came right back into the fold. Nobody runs harder than he does. He's always in the front line."
Unquestionably, the offensive line is always one of the most watched position groups during summer workouts. Fitzgerald has seen the O-line steadily grow in numbers, strength and conditioning levels during his three years in his position.
"I thought the young guys on the offensive line made the most progress," Fitzgerald said. "You will see some of those guys are ready to go."
The only projected starter on the offensive line who is an underclassmen is redshirt freshman A.J. Cann. He strengthened his claim to a starting job with a solid summer of work in the weight room. Meanwhile, Ronald Patrick has bounced back strongly from surgery in the spring in which doctors had to enter the area behind his eyes.
"A.J. Cann has gotten stronger and he's in awesome shape," Fitzgerald said. "Ronald Patrick has really recovered nicely from his eye surgery in the spring. They all had a nice summer. There's a really good foundation there for the future."
Highly acclaimed offensive line prospect Brandon Shell underwent labrum surgery following his senior season at Goose Creek High School, but showed few effects of the procedure over the course of the summer's final few weeks when he had a full range of motion in the weight room. He also participated in all of the conditioning drills.
"Brandon was here all eight weeks and since he's been here he has made great improvements," Fitzgerald said. "His shoulder is coming along. (Head athletic trainer) Clint Haggard has done a great job with his rehab. He's been able to do most everything with us. We made some minor adjustments with his range of motion (in the weight room). But it's just a matter of time for him."
The 6-foot-6, 316-pound Shell should be held out of physical contact for the first week or so of preseason camp after the Gamecocks put on the pads for the first time.
The most pleasant surprise for Fitzgerald? Middle linebacker Shaq Wilson, who appears to be fully recovered from the severe hamstring injury that sidelined him for 13 of 14 games last season.
"Shaq Wilson is in great shape," Fitzgerald said. "Shaq is a guy I always talk about. Based on everything he did, he's ready to go. That wasn't a surprise really, but it was a welcome sight to see him run fast and get into great shape. As far as I'm concerned, he's ready to roll."
Fitzgerald said the 2011 Gamecocks are as close as any of the three USC teams he's worked with since joining the program in January 2009.
"The neatest thing about these guys is they are super close," Fitzgerald said. "It's been great to watch. They are a fun bunch to train. When they came to workouts they were ready to go. They were a very positive, close group. The guys stay loose and have a good time together."