COLUMBIA — The whistle sounded and everyone looked around.
Where’d that come from?
Football practice in the coronavirus bubble means figuring out which coaches can blow a whistle through their masks and those who must uncover their faces. South Carolina got its first taste of what football will look and sound like when it began preseason camp this week.
“It is the new normal, and unfortunately I think we might be doing it for a while,” USC head coach Will Muschamp said. “I’ll probably tell you that I’m probably one of the ones that struggle with it the most. I can’t turn on a computer, unless (video operations director Joe Lisle) does it for me, or (director of football operations) George Wynn, so it’s been a struggle for me, probably more than the players. The players are much more adaptable to these situations than the coaches are.”
The players were just ready to get back on the field.
After spring practice was halted after five sessions, after a summer of wondering if they were ever going to get to play again, even a shorts-and-helmets practice was sweet relief.
The Gamecocks were without two offensive linemen (10-game starter Jordan Rhodes and redshirt freshman Mark Fox) who opted out of the season for COVID-19 concerns, and a handful of players nursing offseason injuries. Everybody else was enthusiastic and spirited during the first workout on Tuesday.
“We were looking forward to this day,” senior defensive tackle Keir Thomas said. “Especially coming off the pandemic.”
Thomas perhaps embraced the return more than most. He was supposed to be starting his pro football journey right now.
Thomas figured the 2019 season was his last in college. A year ago, he started preseason practice healthy after offseason ankle surgery. Two days later, he was on his back.
Keir Thomas (5) is fully recovered from ankle surgery and two post-surgery infections that derailed his 2019 season. Provided/South Carolina Athletics
An infection crept into his ankle sometime during his rehabilitation and by the time the doctors figured out how to treat it, he had already lost some of the time vitally needed for summer conditioning. Antibiotics cleared it up, Thomas started camp and then the ankle got infected again.
A 38-game career contributor was stuck in bed as his teammates finished preseason camp and began the season. Thomas couldn’t eat, couldn’t run, couldn’t work out.
He returned to play in two of the final three games but was nowhere near the player he had been. But if there was a positive to discover during the ordeal, it allowed him time to make up his mind.
No NFL, not last year. Thomas would use his redshirt season and return in 2020, where he could anchor a deep defensive line and then take a shot at the pros.
“It’s the best I felt since the injury,” he said. “Probably one of these days exactly a year ago, that’s when I was infected real bad. It was a horrible feeling just being away from the team.”
Expected to lead on the field, Thomas has also been using his voice off it. Muschamp acknowledged how difficult it is to ask a college student not to socialize with other students, and how tenuous the current bubble is with in-person classes beginning on Thursday. He knows that the student body will have rising COVID positives because there’s no way to stop them.
But a senior like Thomas at least has the presence to echo the coaches’ message, and not from a coaches’ perspective. When Thomas says it to a teammate, it’s from the veteran big brother who wants the senior season he didn’t get to have last year.
“I tell the guys around me all the time, ‘Yo, like coach Muschamp says, we got to live a very boring life,’” Thomas said. “I’m standing on that just as much as him. I want to play, I need the film, a lot of us do. I didn’t think I was going to be here a fifth year, but that’s how things worked out.”
Receiver leaves team
Redshirt freshman receiver Tyquan Johnson has left the team.
“Tyquan and I got together and we both felt like it was in his best interest to get a fresh start,” Muschamp said in a statement.
Johnson played the 2018 season at Fork Union (Va.) Military, then redshirted at USC last year.
Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.