Here are my regular-season grades for the Gamecocks, who finished 10-2 (6-2 SEC):
Connor Shaws senior season turned out well, although he did suffer injuries. Like he always has, though, he kept getting up. Shaw threw 21 touchdowns to one interception, and passed for 2,135 yards to become the Gamecocks winningest quarterback. He also rushed for 511 yards, many of those picked up on third or fourth downs. Backup Dylan Thompson played in nine games and threw four touchdowns but also had three interceptions. Pharoh Cooper was the other quarterback with minutes, but he mostly ran the ball (and did well). Overall, it was Shaws show. He was the leader and backbone of a team that wasnt dominant, but won 10 games.
It became quickly apparent that Mike Davis was a beast running the ball, and even though his season didnt end with great production, he became the fifth USC back since George Rogers to rush for 1,000 yards. Davis ended with 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns, also catching 32 balls from the backfield, to anchor a deep running-back rotation. Brandon Wilds was productive when he played, but an injury limited him to six games. Shon Carson averaged a healthy 4.3 yards per carry.
There were times where they struggled to get open, and times where they would disappear from games. But the best thing about the Gamecocks receivers was that there was never one guy to key on. Damiere Byrd had an amazing season, finally turning potential into production. Bruce Ellington was always there for the crucial catches and scores. Shaq Roland proved the most talented receiver on the roster, if he can just stay on the field. Nick Jones and Shamier Jeffery had a big game or a big catch or two.
A position of mystery all season. The Gamecocks three-deep rotation of tight ends was supposed to have a breakout season, and perhaps get the NFL looking at the meant-for-Sunday talents of Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams. Instead, the TEs were mostly used as blockers. Each caught passes Anderson 17 for 235 yards, Adams 10 for 170, Drew Owens two for 13 but there was one touchdown among them. It didnt hurt the offense, but it didnt particularly help it.
A solid group that had its moments of breaking down (22 sacks allowed, ninth in the SEC), but mostly did well. The Gamecocks opened holes for Davis, and did a fine job blocking downfield for Shaw when he decided to run. There were no glaring issues, despite Clayton Stadnik having to replace starting center Cody Waldrop for half the season. Tackles Brandon Shell and Corey Robinson were hardly overmatched. It can always be better, but, overall, a good year.
The strength of the team in the preseason, the line played solidly but not spectacularly. The mega-hype surrounding Jadeveon Clowney had every team doubling him, so his numbers severely tailed (he had three sacks, but did have 10.5 tackles for loss). Kelcy Quarles had a fine season, leading the team with 13.5 TFL and 9.5 sacks. Chaz Sutton was decent, with 7.5 TFL and two sacks, but nowhere near the production expected of him with Clowney drawing so much attention. Gerald Dixon Jr. and J.T. Surratt played well when they got in. The Gamecocks lost two games, and it cant be said that running the ball through the D-line caused either one of them, but considering the expectations
Everyone knew they were going to struggle at the beginning, especially when Cedrick Cooper was out, and the thought was to judge them after the season. The linebackers werent dominant, but the fundamental improvement from game to game was astronomical. Freshman Skai Moore led the team in tackles and collected two turnovers in his final regular-season game. The other rookies Marcquis Roberts, Kaiwan Lewis, T.J. Holloman also did well. They struggled early in the season, but at the end, they were playing like old pros. Theyll only get better.
A group that struggled throughout the year, but made momentum-turning or game-clinching plays. Jimmy Legree had a fine season, intercepting three passes and always seeming to be there when the Gamecocks needed a stop. Victor Hampton was burned on some plays, but burned receivers on others, also intercepting three balls. For the first time since the position has been in place, USC didnt get a lot from the spur. Sharrod Golightly wasnt terrible, but he wasnt the guy that turned the game around. Safeties Brison Williams, Kadetrix Marcus, Chaz Elder and T.J. Gurley were all good in spots and bad in spots. Overall, a decent season.
The Gamecocks have seldom been special-teams whizzes, but theyve always had the guy who makes a so-so unit look OK. That guy this year was Elliott Fry. The freshman won the job in the preseason and had a magnificent year, making 15 of 18 field-goal attempts (including a couple of big-time kicks against Missouri and Florida) and missing one PAT. Landon Ard was mostly reliable on kickoffs, but sailed a few out-of-bounds. Tyler Hull never quite got it together as the teams punter, averaging 38 yards per kick. The returners didnt get a lot of room, and some had trouble holding onto the ball. The group finished well, getting two crucial turnovers against Clemson, and the hands team saved games against Kentucky and UCF, but the overall season was merely decent.
Its probably a bit higher than the sum of the individual grades would suggest, but its reasonable. The Gamecocks have gotten to the point where they expect to get that one play that means the difference between winning and losing. Thats what triggered a team with five seniors to make those plays and win 10 games. It cant be a top grade for one reason Tennessee. That win would have meant so much to USC, for SEC title and/or BCS implications. The Gamecocks should be applauded because they won 10 games for the fourth time. But in recent history, 10 games has been done before by a lot of these same players. A super season, but one game, and grade, away from a really tremendous season.
FINAL GRADE: B+