The 2017 season will be new territory for Will Muschamp.
Throughout a five-year head coaching career – four at Florida and this soon-to-be-complete season at South Carolina – Muschamp has been in seemingly constant search for offensive playmakers to complement a steady or better defense.
These Gamecocks have young potential stars at quarterback (Jake Bentley), running back (Rico Dowdle), wide receiver (Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards) and tight end (Hayden Hurst). It’s the defense that will have the question marks.
“We’ve got some holes to fill on defense,” Muschamp said.
They’re mostly on the front seven, which is concerning for a team that finished ninth in the SEC and 87th in the nation in rushing defense during the regular season.
The Gamecocks (6-6) will face South Florida (10-2) in the Birmingham Bowl on Thursday, but they spent much of their first week of practices for the game focusing not on the Bulls, but on their own team, specifically the players who will be returning next season.
“That was all building up for next year,” junior defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth said.
The Gamecocks lose five starters and three of their top five tacklers after the bowl game. Here’s what South Carolina will have to replace (and the most likely candidates to fill those spots) at all three levels of its defense.
Defensive ends Darius English and Marquavius Lewis, two of the four defenders to start every game this season, will be gone after Monday. English finished the regular season tied for third in the SEC in sacks, and could become one of just four Gamecocks with a double-digit sack season. English and Lewis combined for 110 tackles and 16 1/2 tackles-for-loss this season.
English believes the apparent heirs to those spots are clear.
“I expect Dante Sawyer and D.J. Wonnum to have really big years next year,” he said.
Stallworth praised Sawyer and Wonnum, too, and added a few other names to the list.
“Shameik (Blackshear) when he gets healthy,” Stallworth said. “He needs to get healthy, and he’ll be a great player, and I am really waiting on Boosie Whitlow to come back.”
Blackshear, a sophomore, is a one-time four-star prospect who has totaled four tackles in two years after being hampered by a knee injury in 2015 and playing 2016 at less than full strength after being shot during the offseason.
Whitlow, a sophomore, has been an enigma this season. As a freshman, he was tied for third on the team with five tackles-for-loss, but he hasn’t seen the field this year and even Stallworth isn’t sure why.
“I really don’t know. That’s behind closed doors,” Stallworth said. “He showed it his freshman year, so I am waiting for him to come back in the spotlight.”
Bryson Allen-Williams, who is tied for the team lead in tackles with 73, is coming back, but that’s about it. Fellow starters T.J. Holloman, the team’s third-leading tackler, and Jonathan Walton, the fourth-leading tackler, will play their final game Thursday. Reserve Larenz Bryant, four tackles this season, also will exhaust his eligibility.
The biggest question at linebacker is whether or not Skai Moore will return. Moore led the Gamecocks in tackles from 2013-15, but missed this season with a neck injury. He hasn’t spoken to the media this season. Muschamp said last week he expects Moore to return, but Allen-Williams indicated this week that isn’t a sure thing.
“I’m waiting to see if he’s going to return or not,” Allen-Williams said. “I don’t want to speak for him. Nobody knows anything for certain.”
The Gamecocks certainly could use Moore. The only linebackers to play this year other than the three seniors to leave are freshmen T.J. Brunson and Sherrod Pittman, and they played sparingly, combining for 13 tackles (11 for Brunson and two for Pittman).
Sophomore Jalen Dread is the only other scholarship linebacker on the roster, leading Muschamp to predict some first-year players will have to contribute next year.
“Absolutely,” Muschamp said. “They better get ready.”
The secondary will be the most veteran group on the defense next year, with three starters returning (cornerbacks Chris Lammons and Jamarcus King and safety Steven Montac). Safety Chris Moody is the only regular starter who’ll graduate after the bowl game.
“Our secondary needs to step up and take that leap and be one of the top secondaries in the country,” Lammons said.
Defense By the Numbers
Five starters will finish eligibility in Birmingham Bowl
Three of top five and five of top nine tacklers are leaving
Twelve of 21 sacks will be lost after bowl game