Even on a team with more questions than answers heading into the 2016 season, the idea that Chris Moody and Steven Montac would be South Carolina’s starting safeties in the third week of the season seems far-fetched, but there they were last week lining up to start the East Carolina game.
Moody, a 6-1, 220-pound senior, played safety for three years for South Carolina before briefly deciding to leave the team after the 2015 season. Moody returned to the team during spring drills and was quickly moved to linebacker before being bumped back out to safety due to regular starter Chaz Elder’s injury. Montac, a 5-11, 190-pounder, wasn’t even on the roster when preseason practice began. A transfer from Coffeyville Community College, he was a two-star prospect.
“For my first time on the field, I think I performed really well,” Montac said.
Their elevation to the starting lineup is a testament to their ability on one hand and the Gamecocks unsettled safety rotation on the other. Elder, who started the first two games, will miss his second straight game Saturday due to a rib injury, so there’s likely more juggling coming this week against a Kentucky team that averages more yards per passing attempt (10.8) than any team in the SEC. The Wildcats rank sixth in the country in yards per completion (18.4).
South Carolina’s most productive safety this season has been junior D.J. Smith, who is second on the team with 19 tackles. Smith played 86 snaps against East Carolina despite not starting and is expected to return to the lineup this week against the Wildcats.
“Depending on what type of team we are playing, that’s how the rotation is going to go,” said freshman Antoine Wilder, who made his first career start against nickel against East Carolina but can also play safety. “We are going to try to put our better cover guys in first, try to stop the ball, make them run the ball.”
The catch-22 for the Gamecocks is that Kentucky doesn’t mind running the ball. In fact, the Wildcats have fewer pass attempts (63) than any team in the SEC. They have rushed 110 times for 571 yards and average an SEC-best 7.23 yards per play overall.
“We have a lot of offense we can pull from,” Stoops said. “What we’re going to feature each week depends on what you’re going to see and where we go and how much we can handle week to week.”
Kentucky will be playing with its backup quarterback, Stephen Johnson, Saturday because of an injury to starter Drew Barker. Johnson completed 17-of-22 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns last week in relief of Barker and also is a greater running threat than Barker.
“We knew he was a good player, but I didn’t know he’d have that kind of game with those kind of numbers,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “You take away that first series and he was absolutely remarkable. So let’s hope he can keep that going. Either way, if he’s not perfect, we know he’ll keep his poise and operate this offense and move the offense. We have a lot of confidence in him.”
Barker’s dual threat ability will create issues for South Carolina’s safeties.
“Any spread team is going to put stress on us because we have the slot and a lot of skill guys, but our skill payers are pretty good,” Smith said. “We just have to game plan and be ready to play.”
Muschamp, who also serves as South Carolina’s safeties coach, describes the progress of the safeties as “day to day.”
“We were OK” against East Carolina, he said.
Kentucky will be a chance to take another step.
Who: South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 SEC) vs. Kentucky (1-2, 0-1 SEC)
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Commonwealth Stadium (61,000), Lexington, Ky.
Series history: USC leads 17-9-1, but UK has won the last two (and two of the last three in Lexington)
TV: SEC Network (Brent Musburger, play-by-play; Jesse Palmer, analysis; Kaylee Hartung, sideline)
Radio: 107.5 FM (Todd Ellis, play-by-play; Tommy Suggs, analysis; Langston Moore, sideline)
Satellite radio: Sirius 106/XM 190
Line: Kentucky by 2 1/2
Weather: Sunny, with a high near 91 during the day, then low 80s near kickoff. Mostly clear Saturday night, with an overnight low around 65.