David Cloninger

USC football midseason report card: Lots of room for improvement

South Carolina receiver Pharoh Cooper has played well this season, as expected, but the Gamecocks have lacked consistent help at the receiver position.
South Carolina receiver Pharoh Cooper has played well this season, as expected, but the Gamecocks have lacked consistent help at the receiver position. gmelendez@thestate.com

A look at South Carolina’s season thus far and grading each position. The Gamecocks are 3-4 overall and 1-4 in SEC play.

Quarterback

It’s been a carousel, which is exactly what the Gamecocks hoped to avoid. Nobody had significant experience, so the hope was that Connor Mitch would start most of the year and grow into the role. A separated shoulder and nasty hip infection derailed that, forcing Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez into the role. Nobody has been particularly effective, each learning on the fly, but Orth has seemed to settle in over the last two games. He’s completed 52.4 percent of his throws for 755 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. It’s serviceable, which seems to be the best USC will get with Nunez ailing. The preferred QB-as-a-running-threat offensive plan is mostly shelved with Orth under center, but he’s throwing the ball around pretty well.

GRADE: C+

Running back

Another position that couldn’t afford an injury was hit with it when Brandon Wilds went down at Georgia. The Gamecocks simply aren’t good running the ball without his threat, and defenses know it. His “give me the ball” statement, and then curiously sitting out at LSU despite being cleared cast another pall over his ability. When David Williams – another thought-to-be home-run threat – flashed mostly cold, the Gamecocks’ backfield was reverted to pass-blocking. Shon Carson had the highlight of the season-opener, but outside of that 48-yard burst, Carson has a mere 136 rushing yards in six games.

GRADE: D

Wide receiver

USC knew it had one of the game’s most electrifying players in Pharoh Cooper, and thought somebody from a long list would step forward as the No. 2 (and maybe No. 3) receiver. Hasn’t happened. Cooper has been Cooper with 587 yards and four touchdowns, but the next-leading actual receiver is Matrick Belton with six catches for 43 yards. Carlton Heard, Shamier Jeffery, Terry Googer – all have cycled through with a blip or two but nothing sustained (although D.J. Neal seems to be stepping forward). The Gamecocks have no McKinley or Ellington or Jones to always be there for the short pass.

GRADE: C

Tight end

A surprisingly strong group that has somewhat bailed out the non-productive wide receiver corps. Jerell Adams is one of the best TEs in the country, but the Gamecocks often seem clueless on how to find him on the field. When they do, he has shown the ability to pinball off defenders and still reach the end zone. Jacob “Dan” August has been solid, while Kyle Markway and Hayden Hurst (who has dabbled at receiver) are going to be top contributors next year.

GRADE: A

Offensive line

It’s a two-way street when an offense struggles – is it the players who aren’t making plays, or the line not doing its job by opening holes and protecting? They’ve only given up 12 sacks, and when they had an injury they couldn’t afford – center Alan Knott – true freshman Zack Bailey admirably filled in despite having never played center. The line has been decent at giving its QBs room to throw and not-so-decent at run-blocking – not having a breakout back does hinder any productivity, but the red-zone struggles and inability to punch the ball in from the goal line is a severe weakness. Perhaps it gets better with at least a clear-cut plan of what the offense wants to do.

GRADE: C-

Defensive line

First, the numbers. With 13 sacks, USC is only one off the total of all of last year. All but one have come from the linemen. Production-wise, it’s a case of half-and-half. There are times the Gamecocks get pressure on the quarterbacks, but with the way Jon Hoke’s defense is designed, all QBs know they can get rid of the ball quickly because the middle of the field and underneath routes will be wide open. There has been no adjustment to that scheme, meaning the pass-rushers often get to their spot and the ball is nowhere to be found. Hoke’s two staples are to rush and cover. USC is rushing, but not getting results, because the second part hasn’t come around.

GRADE: B

Linebackers

They were depended on to quarterback the defense, and have had to rove from side to side because of the scheme. They’re doing their job, and doing it well. Skai Moore continues to make his case for one of the best all-around defenders in USC history (leading the team in tackles for a third straight year, and closing in on a career interception record). T.J. Holloman has blossomed into a strong player and while Jonathan Walton’s production has been curbed due to Holloman, he still has 27 tackles, three for loss, and two forced fumbles. They couldn’t play any better.

GRADE: A

Defensive backs

They swear it’s them and not the scheme. Whatever the culprit, the Gamecocks’ secondary has been a disaster. DBs refuse to play closer to the line and take away some of the receivers’ cushions. The result is screen after screen after screen, making some of the SEC’s worst offenses (Missouri) and average-at-best QBs (Greyson Lambert) look like NFL Hall-of-Famers. Poor Isaiah Johnson, the last line of defense at safety, has 43 tackles because hardly anybody in front of him can stick to a receiver. The spur spot (or the nickel as it’s been renamed) has been an NFL launching pad at USC; Jordan Diggs has not been good. Only one true DB has an interception.

GRADE: F

Special teams

The brightest spot on the team. Sean Kelly has, in half a season, erased years of bad memories from the punting position. He’s one of the best in the league and can seemingly kick it exactly where he wants it to go. Elliott Fry, while he’s had some misses, is becoming the offense’s most consistent weapon. And the Gamecocks, for the first time since 2002, broke a kickoff for a touchdown.

GRADE: A+

Overall

Looking at what we knew before the season, the record is about where it should be. The only glaring sore spot is the Kentucky loss — the Gamecocks should have won that. And as the season has gone on, that Missouri loss is more and more befuddling. There’s been a lot of bad with the threadbare talent, major injuries and the legendary coach quitting, and a tiny bit of good. The best part is that it’s only a mid-term grade, and at least for one game, the new coach and new attitude seem to be at least giving hope. That may be taken down quite a few pegs about to head to play a head-scratching Texas A&M squad, but at least for right now, a bad mid-term grade that can be significantly improved.

GRADE: D

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