David Cloninger looks at every aspect of South Carolina’s 7-6 season and assigns a grade.
Dylan Thompson had great moments – he led the SEC in passing yards and set a single-season program standard with 3,574. He tossed 26 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and completed nearly 60 percent of his passes. He also had bad moments – he took far too many sacks when there was time to dump the ball, and he always had a penchant for a really bad turnover. The fumble at Clemson and his tipped pick-six at Kentucky glared at the end of the year. A “C” grade would be average, saying there wasn’t that much difference between good and bad. Thompson did far more good than bad, and saved himself from a rather ignominious accomplishment – the single-season passing yards holder who quarterbacked the Gamecocks to their only losing season under Steve Spurrier. And he did that by running in the winning touchdown in the Independence Bowl.
The Gamecocks had to deal with an offensive line that wasn’t nearly as solid as it was supposed to be, but still posted an average 4.4 yards per carry. Mike Davis was the featured back and ended up 18 yards short of 1,000 for the year, while Brandon Wilds averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 93 fewer attempts. David Williams didn’t get many chances, but had 5.7 yards per carry and two scores when he did. Each had their share of hard runs, refusing to go down against stacked defenses. Davis finished his career with a peeling label – there was no question he had the talent, but he spent many crucial plays on the sideline with minor injuries. All had the problem of not getting the ball enough. Overall, a very strong season, but not nearly as strong as it could have been.
Pharoh Cooper exploded from a do-it-all athlete to a 1,000-yard first-team all-conference receiver, consistently re-recording over his own highlight film with a “Yeah? Watch this!” attitude. All Nick Jones does is catch the ball, and he finished second on the team with 504 yards. Damiere Byrd again struggled to be consistent, but caught three touchdowns. The biggest knock on the group was Shaq Roland, who had fans and coaches wondering what was more important to him – himself or what he could do when thrown the ball. It was far too much of the former, and it deprived the team of a multi-talented pass-catcher for much of the season. But it didn’t sink the group as a whole, which enabled Thompson to direct a marvelous offensive season.
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With so many receiving targets, Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams often went unheralded, but each had some big catches. Anderson had 22 for 260 yards and a score through a season where he had several drops and angered the Tricep Gods (three tears in less than a year). Adams had 21 for 279 and a TD.
Again, this was supposed to be one of the best lines in USC history. It fell far short of that mark. Whether it was injury (Mike Matulis and Cody Waldrop were each hurt early) or inexperience (Alan Knott and Clayton Stadnik each had adventurous games snapping the ball), the line simply didn’t play up to its hype. Corey Robinson may be a high-round pick in the NFL next year but he often had plays where he was stuck in place. Brandon Shell continues to be solid but unspectacular. The quarterback was sacked 27 times and there were often issues opening holes for the backs. A.J. Cann finished a marvelous career and was often the last man protecting his pal Thompson. The Gamecocks needed far more of that.
From starting the season in a three-man front to returning to what it was used to, USC’s defensive front was mostly missing all season. Opponents never had resistance running straight up the middle against the Gamecocks, and a unit that lived and died by the pass-rush for the past few seasons mustered a mere 14 sacks for the year. J.T. Surratt and the Dixon brothers were at least in on most stops but USC got no production from its edge rushers. They couldn’t get off blocks and couldn’t tackle when they had men in front of them. The three fourth-quarter meltdowns that defined the season were in large part due to the defensive line – Kentucky’s JoJo Kemp and Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs ran through them like they were tissue paper. USC also couldn’t get through a bad Clemson offensive line to hit a one-legged Deshaun Watson. The inability of the D-line to generate any pressure on the QB had the rest of the defense playing on banana peels.
The most talented and experienced group, the linebackers had an up-and-down season. It certainly wasn’t their fault that many times, they had to get around their blocker and their own defensive lineman being pushed into them to make a tackle. They also made some outstanding plays, particularly in the Independence Bowl. USC finally figured out to keep Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton on the field at the same time, and Moore led the team in tackles for the second straight year. Marcquis Roberts had a good season and Bryson Allen-Williams, switching from LB to defensive end, also played well at times. They had their share of missed tackles just like the linemen but Moore and Walton had four of the team’s 11 interceptions. Lorenzo Ward thought this group would lead his defense, and he was correct – although he had to hurriedly re-adjust his plans after the first game.
This group was expected to struggle with so much youth, and it did. What really hurt it was the defensive line’s failure to get any kind of pass-rush. Anybody will tell you that the longer a quarterback has to sit in the pocket and look at his receivers, he’ll find one open – a defensive back simply can’t cover a guy move for move on every play. No pressure left the DBs by themselves too much and they were burned on routes; they had the same issue as the rest of the defense and couldn’t wrap tackles; there was often miscommunication on plays that led to receivers running free downfield. T.J. Gurley led the group with 49 tackles and senior Brison Williams played through pain to nab four interceptions. Youngsters Chris Lammons and Al Harris have a lot of potential. Jordan Diggs seems set to take over at spur. Not a great year for the secondary, but not a horrendous year.
Take away the Vanderbilt disaster and it was actually a strong year for special teams. Tyler Hull had the best year of his career, Elliott Fry had another good season despite slipping a bit at the end and Landon Ard reclaimed his kickoff role after losing it midseason. Kickoff return was another no-show, mostly because balls were booted into the end zone, but Shon Carson had some decent runs (although he still can’t get past first contact when he did get a return). Cooper was OK on punt return, and outside of Vandy, USC wasn’t scorched on returns. But there was that Vandy game.
OVERALL GRADE: C+