Here are my regular-season grades for the Gamecocks, who finished 10-2 (6-2 SEC):
Connor Shaw’s 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 Shaw’s show. He was the leader and backbone of a team that wasn’t dominant, but won 10 games.
It became quickly apparent that Mike Davis was a beast running the ball, and even though his season didn’t 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. The only knock on these guys was they should have been used more.
There were times where they struggled to get open, and times where they would disappear from games entirely. But the best thing about the Gamecocks’ receivers was that there was never one guy to key on — several took their turn as the breakout man from game to game. 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. Anderson had a case of the drops all year and Adams wasn’t targeted much. 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 didn’t hurt the offense, but it didn’t particularly help it.
A sturdy, 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 replace starting center Cody Waldrop for half the season. Tackles Brandon Shell and Corey Robinson were hardly ever 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 can’t 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. What more can be said about the group except, it grew up as the season progressed? The linebackers weren’t 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. They’ll only get better.
A group that struggled throughout the year, but made big, 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. The others played OK, but didn’t light the world up. For the first time since the position has been in place, USC didn’t get a lot from the spur. Sharrod Golightly wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t 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.
It always seems to be the “yeah, but” scenario. The Gamecocks have seldom been special-teams whizzes, but they’ve 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. The rest of the special teams were hit-or-miss. Landon Ard was mostly reliable on kickoffs, but sailed a few out-of-bounds. Tyler Hull never quite got it together as the team’s punter, averaging 38 yards per kick. The returners didn’t get a lot of room, and some had trouble holding onto the ball, which made a lot of thought-to-be-over games into one-possession affairs. The group finished well, getting two crucial turnovers against Clemson, and the hands team saving games against Kentucky and UCF, but the overall season was merely decent.
It’s probably a bit higher than the sum of the individual grades would suggest, but it’s reasonable. The Gamecocks have gotten to the point where they expect to get that one play that means the difference between winning and losing. That’s what triggered a team with five seniors to make those plays and win 10 games. It can’t 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.