COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina linebacker Kiawan Lewis believes the Gamecocks' success won't stop now that stars such as Jadeveon Clowney and Connor Shaw are gone.
"I still love all my great former teammates that I've had, but it's a new team. New faces that are here looking to make an impact," he said. "It's going to be another big season, as big as we can make it."
That's a high bar to clear. Clowney, Shaw, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles and receiver Bruce Ellington were some of the catalysts for an unprecedented run of South Carolina success: the Gamecocks finished 11-2 each of the past three seasons and last January were No. 4 in the national rankings for the team's highest finish in history.
The Gamecocks took part in the yearly summer Pigskin Poets event at the Richland County Public Library on Friday. The players were swarmed by grade-schoolers for autographs after reading books and singing songs.
Lewis, a junior, knows the Gamecocks can't worry about who they've lost as they get ready to report to preseason camp in two weeks.
"We had great offseason training, so we're going into camp optimistic and trying to keep everybody healthy and have a great season game by game," Lewis said.
Others share Lewis' belief. The Gamecocks were picked as preseason favorites to win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division at the league's media days this week, despite not having a player selected to the all-SEC first team.
South Carolina's players won't pay attention to the high expectations for the team — or the low ones for individuals, said receiver Damiere Byrd.
"It's not anything we worry about," he said. "We just want to keep getting ready for each game."
Byrd is a senior — considered the fastest player on the squad — who has yet to fully live up his potential as a consistent deep threat with 48 career catches. Byrd, who had offseason knee surgery, knows he's one being counted on to fill the void left by Ellington, last year's leading receiver taken in the NFL draft's fourth round by the San Francisco 49ers.
"Bruce had given us production that we loved and that we needed," Byrd said. "As he moved on, it's time for the younger guys and other veterans to take that place."
Byrd and the other wideouts will have a new passer under center in Dylan Thompson, the backup for Shaw the past few seasons. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has called Shaw perhaps the greatest quarterback in team history, yet believes Thompson has enough experience and talent to keep things going.
"We really believe he's a very good player, has a chance to lead us to a big season," Spurrier said this week.
Perhaps the largest hole the Gamecocks need to fill is on the defensive line, where Clowney chased down quarterbacks and disrupted offenses for the past three seasons. Clowney gave up his senior season for the NFL draft, where he was taken No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans.
Besides Clowney, playmaking defensive tackle Quarles and rangy, fast defensive end Chaz Sutton are also gone, leaving a bunch of spots to fill by players who haven't had lots of experience.
Lewis said it's a similar scenario to last year when the Gamecocks entered the season after losing five senior linebackers or safeties from a year earlier. There were adjustments to make, he said, but by the end of the 2013 season the group had found their footing and helped South Carolina finish fourth in SEC defense and 19th nationally.
The Gamecocks will look to junior Gerald Dixon Jr. and sophomores Gerald Dixon and Darius English to pick up for the lost linemen.
"I'm optimistic about it, I think they'll have great seasons and definitely be key contributors to this defense," Lewis said.