David Cloninger

Season Report Card: Grading the Gamecocks for 2016

South Carolina went to a bowl game in coach Will Muschamp’s first season and finished 6-7 overall. David Cloninger looks at every aspect of South Carolina’s season and assigns a grade.

Quarterback

Three starters combined for an expected middling performance. Jake Bentley finished the year with the most important statistic (four wins) and is the QB of the future after completing 65.8 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and four picks. He’s learning, with a few freshman mistakes thrown in and a few more added because his lack of a line affected the running game and heaped more pressure on him. Brandon McIlwain was the better runner of the three, Perry Orth was the headiest, but Bentley was the one who claimed the job. Had Muschamp not made the call to start Bentley, very doubtful USC would have gotten to a bowl game.

GRADE: B

Running back

Definitely some talent to lean on and some more coming in next year, but this year’s performance was so-so. Some of that is the line, and some of it is because the best tailback on the team, Rico Dowdle, missed four games. Dowdle proved he could run through contact and get yards despite a raggedy offensive front, while A.J. Turner, the speed guy, had some nice runs. USC again didn’t get much from David Williams and as a whole, the position gained 134 yards per game. For a team that has to run the ball, finishing 13th in the SEC isn’t going to cut it.

GRADE: C

Wide receiver

Really tough to distinguish as a wide receiver when the quarterbacks are different levels of passers. Fortunately for the group, Bentley’s emergence helped get their totals up, although it still became a two-man show. Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards can be the best 1-2 punch in the league if the offense becomes solvent, Samuel in particular showing how game-breaking he can be during the Birmingham Bowl. USC needs to develop a third option behind the two – the other top receivers were tight ends or tailbacks – but they have a good starting point.

GRADE: B

Tight end

A position that was supposed to be solid became spectacular. Hayden Hurst had the most prolific season by a tight end in school history, and K.C. Crosby became a dependable second option. Hurst, a man among boys in terms of having already grown into his physique, was a bull to bring down and had terrific hands, finishing behind Samuel in receptions. It’s good that an offense that wants to have its bread and butter be the run will take advantage of what it has.

GRADE: A

Offensive line

I thought it would be the strength of the offense because it had the most experience. Muschamp said that as well. Yet the line gave up 15 more sacks than it did a year ago. It also had more than 20 yards less per game rushing and nearly 15 yards less per game in total offense. It seemed like nobody grasped the concept of bodying up their man, keeping him off a USC ball-carrier or pushing him backward. The Gamecocks have had line issues for years, but it seemed like, at one point, it had at least stabilized. Instead, it drastically slipped this year. Now, it only loses one starter in Mason Zandi, but it’s guaranteed I won’t be trumpeting that experience going into next year, especially with a new position coach.

GRADE: F

Defensive line

Overall, the unit contributed to a massive improvement. USC’s defense finished dead last in the SEC last year and was seventh this year, and Darius English (nine sacks) finally lived up to his massive potential. Other than English, though, the line’s individuals fought inconsistency all year. They had trouble wrapping runners and getting to the quarterback. USC never got the swarming effect it wanted. There was constant rotation to try and keep players fresh, which is the right idea, but taking out the best to put in guys who aren’t the best had the expected results. Definite improvement, but the line heaped a lot of pressure on the second and third levels.

GRADE: D

Linebackers

Often left to clean up the D-line’s misses, the linebackers started well and slipped at the end. They did contribute to the red-zone defense, which was one of the best in the SEC, and to the turnovers (T.J. Holloman tied for the team lead with three interceptions). Bryson Allen-Williams, Holloman and Jonathan Walton finished 2-3-4 in team tackles, which replaced the injured Skai Moore, but at the end of the season, the LBs were victim to the same issues as the rest of the defense – non-fundamental tackling, being caught out of position and giving up chunk plays. Considering Moore didn’t play, it was an OK year. Could have ended much better.

GRADE: C

Defensive backs

A surprisingly productive group given the team’s lack of talent coming in. Chris Lammons had his best year (when he wasn’t getting thrown out for targeting) and D.J. Smith led the team in tackles. The Gamecocks recorded 15 interceptions, with Jamarcus King and Lammons tying Holloman with three apiece. Like the rest of the defense, they slipped at the end, King in particular after being named SEC Defensive Player of the Week. But considering what they had to work with at the beginning, the secondary did well.

GRADE: B

Special teams

Elliott Fry became USC’s career leading scorer, Sean Kelly punted through pain all year and Drew Williams continued the crucial but thankless role of long-snapping, doing it extremely well. The return game was an adventure, USC seemingly unable to catch the ball consistently, never mind return it. But there were some big gains on kick return this year, and the specialists never cost USC a game.

GRADE: B

Overall

To see this team double its win total despite losing its two best players from a year ago and get to a bowl was phenomenal. The only regret is the Gamecocks didn’t finish as strongly as they could have after winning three in a row midseason. The last four games were disappointing, but in the big picture, it was a strong year.

GRADE: C

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