Saturday is not a game day in the truest sense for South Carolina’s football team, but it’s just as big for some Gamecocks.
“Oh absolutely, it’s a big day for us,” senior quarterback Perry Orth said. “It’s a big day for all the guys on offense and defense to prove themselves.”
South Carolina will hold its first scrimmage of fall camp Saturday in Williams-Brice Stadium. It is closed to the public and the media, which is a sure sign there is important work being done. Orth expects an update on the quarterback competition following the workout, so in anticipation of that day, let’s take a look at how things are shaping up for South Carolina after nine practices. We’ll start with the offense today.
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The Gamecocks quarterback rotation has remained unchanged since the opening of camp. Orth, who started eight games last year, is taking the first-team snaps on one day, and freshman Brandon McIlwain, the four-star prospect who emerged during spring practice, is taking the first-team snaps the next day. Sophomore Lorenzo Nunez is essentially a full-time wide receiver now who might have a role as a Wildcat quarterback.
Freshman Jake Bentley, a four-star prospect who skipped his senior season of high school to enroll early, has yet to show enough to bust into the Orth-McIlwain practice rotation, and if we don’t hear something about Bentley after Saturday’s scrimmage, it’s a safe bet his turn won’t come until the future.
Orth has had some good days at practices, including Monday, when he took the first-team reps.
“May have been our best day,” he said.
If the Gamecocks were opening the season this week rather than Sept. 1, Orth probably would get the nod as the starter. Over the long haul, though, McIlwain’s overall athletic advantage still makes him a smart bet as the eventual starter.
It would be a surprise if Orth and McIlwain don’t both play against the Commodores.
Against all odds, the running back competition has become the most interesting one of the fall. Senior David Williams entered fall as the top running back, but it’s all gone downhill from there. First, it was Will Muschamp calling out Williams work ethic. Then it was Williams taking third-string snaps during the portion of practice open to the media on Saturday. Then there was this Monday from freshman A.J. Turner, who has supplanted Williams as the No. 1 running back at least for now: When asked who was working behind him, Turner replied, “Bear (Darius) Paulk and Rod Talley … and a little bit of David Williams.”
A little bit of David Williams?
What looked like a motivational ploy a week ago now looks like a problem for the Gamecocks. Williams, a 220-pound former four-star prospect out of Philadelphia, should be the starting tailback for this team. Turner is a former three-star prospect from Clifton, Va., who South Carolina’s coaches thought in the spring could be a nice change-of-pace in the offensive backfield because he’s a fastest running back on the roster. However, the prospect of the 197-pound youngster as the every down option isn’t comforting. Even Turner knows it.
“Obviously, weight is a problem,” he said. “I believe pass protection is a big thing. It’s really hard. It’s not a natural thing for anybody. Blocking guys who are way bigger than me is a challenging thing.”
The Gamecocks need to have at least three tailbacks ready to go each Saturday. Paulk and Talley are former walk-ons. Freshman Rico Dowdle was sidelined by an injury Monday, and we haven’t heard much from him or fellow freshman C.J. Freeman.
If Williams is not the starting running back against Vanderbilt, and that becomes more and more of a question mark with each passing day, the Gamecocks will have a depth problem at the position.
Sophomore Deebo Samuel has been sidelined the last few days by an undisclosed injury, but it makes sense the Gamecocks would be extra careful with the one player they view as a proven commodity on the perimeter. Nunez has dominated most of the wide receiver coverage so far in camp, which makes sense because his size and athleticism could be a boon at the position if he can make a quick transition, but don’t forget about Bryan Edwards. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound freshman didn’t make a splash in spring practice because he still wasn’t 100 percent recovered (mentally at least) from a high school knee injury. That changed over the summer, when Edwards’ ability began to shine through. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has played a full season with only three receivers he trusts (at Duke), and if Samuel is healthy and Nunez and Edwards are what he hopes they can be, he’ll have that many this year.
As for the rest of the bunch, it’s still a toss-up about who will contribute. Freshman Kiel Pollard was immediately impressive enough that he worked with the veterans during the split squad practices, and he’s been spotted a tight end at least once in practice. Freshman Korey Banks, who could be an option in the slot, scored during the open portion of Monday’s practice. Orth mentioned Javon Charleston catching his eye one day. Terry Googer, Jamari Smith and Matrick Belton have had a quiet camp, at least publicly.
About the only place the Gamecocks aren’t juggling the starting lineup every day is at offensive line. The front five is Mason Zandi (left tackle), Zack Bailey (left guard), Cory Helms (center), Donell Stanley (right guard) and D.J. Park (right tackle). The biggest question mark along the front is if Helms is merely a placeholder for last year’s starting center Alan Knott when Knott comes back from a hand injury that has had him practicing in a cast. If Knott does take the top spot in the middle when he’s healthy, Helms, a Wake Forest transfer who started 23 games as a Demon Deacon, still looks like he’ll have a starting spot at guard in place of Stanley.
The emergence of Park from freshman slacker to junior starter may be one of the most important if overlooked developments of the last six months for the Gamecocks offense. The 6-foot-4, 330-pound Dillon native has the physical ability to be an all-conference type player.
Like everyone else at this time of year, South Carolina’s offensive players are starting to feel good about what they are seeing.
“We are starting to get a grip on what Coach Roper wants. The quarterbacks are getting better every single day,” Orth said. “The offensive line has done an incredible job blocking. Everyone has done really well.”
Orth also added a predictable, but telling, compliment for his new offensive coaching staff. Pay attention to the wording.
“Everything is so much attention to detail,” he said. “When we leave meetings I feel like we understand what is being asked of us. That’s a credit to the coaches.”
August optimism is cheap in college football, but it’s better than the alternative.