South Carolina finally gets a break in its schedule this weekend as the Gamecocks have their only open date of the season at the exact midpoint of the schedule.
The team can use the rest. The Gamecocks lost their fourth consecutive SEC game on Sunday, falling 28-14 to Georgia. The players took Monday off “to decompress” while the coaching staff planned to huddle in meetings most of the day, trying to figure out how to turn this season around, first-year coach Will Muschamp said.
“We have to get back in the open week and find out some things we can improve on,” Muschamp said. “All positions are open, and in the evaluations of those positions, we have to get more efficient.”
“All positions are open” is something a lot of coaches say during tough times, but what does it actually mean? Let’s take a look at this team position by position to see where it might turn if changes are made.
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Senior Perry Orth and true freshman Brandon McIlwain have each started three games, and the results have been about the same. The Gamecocks are last in the nation in scoring (14 points per game) and 123rd in yards (304.5 per game).
The only option here other than finding the right mix of Orth and McIlwain is turning to true freshman Jake Bentley, a four-star prospect who enrolled this summer and hasn’t played this season.
When asked specifically about Bentley on Sunday, Muschamp said, “We need to evaluate where we are moving forward, that’s at all positions.”
Wasting Bentley’s redshirt season midway through a season in which quarterback is far from the only problem doesn’t seem like the right move or something the Gamecocks will do.
Freshman Rico Dowdle made his first career start against Georgia and finished with seven carries for 30 yards. It wasn’t much, but it’s probably enough to hold onto the starting job.
The Gamecocks haven’t been displeased with redshirt freshman A.J. Turner, who started the first five games, but Turner remains undersized to be the best fit as an every down back. Meanwhile, junior David Williams, the presumed starter entering fall camp, continues to be MIA. Williams had two carries against Texas A&M and didn’t play Sunday against Georgia.
Deebo Samuel returned to the lineup and had his best game of the season against Georgia, catching four passes for 90 yards. The Gamecocks haven’t so much been choosing the starting lineup at receiver as having it dictated to them because of injury. If Samuel and freshman Bryan Edwards can stay healthy, they’ll be the top two receivers for the rest of the season.
The question mark comes at the third receiver spot. Do the Gamecocks give junior Jamari Smith another shot after early-season issues catching the ball, or do they continue to use their athletic tight ends like Hayden Hurst, K.C. Crosby and Kiel Pollard as their slot receiving options? The smart money is on the tight ends right now, who continue to trend upward as a group.
Again, injuries have dictated the starting lineups as much as anything. With tackle Blake Camper now healthy and guard Donnell Stanley (ankle) expected to be back in time for the next game, the Gamecocks will have eight offensive linemen who’ve started a game this year from which to choose a starting five for the UMass game. Guard Zack Bailey, center Alan Knott and tackle Mason Zandi appear to be safe in the starting lineup, leaving Stanley, Camper, Corey Helms and D.J. Park for two other spots. With two weeks of practice until the next game, South Carolina can experiment with some of the positional versatility it has to see which five is the best five.
The Gamecocks look settled with a fairly deep rotation along the defensive front. Senior end Darius English has been a pleasant surprise this season, and he leads the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss with six. Freshman Keir Thomas is another bright spot. He has started the past two games. Ten defensive lineman played against the Bulldogs – starters English, Thomas, Marquavius Lewis and Taylor Stallworth and reserves Dante Sawyer, D.J. Wonnum, Ulric Jones, Kelsey Griffin, Kobe Smith and Abu Lamin. Jones and Griffin have started games at points and could pop back in the starting lineup this season, but the basic rotation seems here to stay. Sawyer also could make his way into the starting lineup.
The return of Larenz Bryant gives the team some flexibility, but starters Bryson Allen-Williams, Jon Walton and T.J. Holloman look far and away like the best options. Allen-Williams and Holloman are Nos. 1 and 2 on the team in tackles, with 37 and 35, and Walton is fifth with 28 stops. Freshman T.J. Brunson has made good progress, but isn’t ready to start.
Safety D.J. Smith is the only stalwart in a secondary that’s changed on multiple occasions. It appears the cornerback rotation already consists of all three of the scholarship cornerbacks – Rashad Fenton, Chris Lammons and Jamarcus King – and the team plays so much nickel that all three are on the field more often than not. There’s not really a significant change to be made there unless Jordan Diggs can break back into the nickel back rotation. For now, Chris Moody has taken the starting spot beside Smith, but Chaz Elder could return to that spot after losing it to a rib injury suffered early in the season.