Wrapping up and assigning grades for South Carolina’s 3-9 (1-7 SEC) season:
No matter who won the job, inexperience was going to define USC’s quarterback this season. Nobody had any real game time before the year, and the thought was that Steve Spurrier and staff would like to choose one guy and let him develop throughout the year.
That became Connor Mitch, who understandably struggled in his only two games before an injury shelved him, and that began spinning the carousel. Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez each took turns starting. Orth fully took over when Nunez was hurt, and while he played far above his talent, he could only do so much.
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Orth being thrust into the role was an indictment of lack of quarterback development and recruiting over the past few seasons. He played well, but he often had a back-breaking interception or missed focus during the most important times. He passed for nearly 2,000 yards and completed 54.8 percent of his passes, but he also threw nine picks to 12 touchdowns and took too many sacks. Nunez was a runner who wasn’t going to throw (32-of-52 for 376 yards, three touchdowns and three INTs). The position was bland and predictable, caused by lack of talent, all season.
Thought to be a strength, the position was merely average all season. Any running back needs a hole to run through, and USC’s offensive line was only up to that task about half the time. Much of the other half was defenses knowing that if Nunez or Pharoh Cooper were under center, they could stack the box and limit the play. In any case, Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson and David Williams were OK. They barely broke open games, but rarely lost them.
Wilds again couldn’t stay healthy and had a scant 567 yards on 123 attempts with three touchdowns. Williams often seemed unsure of where he was supposed to go and had 299 yards on 86 attempts. Carson, too small to be an every-down back but quick enough to get to an edge (as he did against North Carolina and Clemson), wasn’t used often enough and finished with 297 yards on 52 attempts. Taken together, they were serviceable, but not spectacular.
There would always be something to see because Cooper was there. The junior lived up to his billing, leading the team with 973 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. The rest? They lived up to their preseason listings – walk-ons, former walk-ons or guys who had been around and not produced.
Deebo Samuel finished fourth in receiving yards and he only played five games, revealing the lack of depth. Matrick Belton and Carlton Heard were on the two-deep all season and had a combined 23 catches for 199 yards.
Shamier Jeffery had one good game, but finished another year of non-production. Hayden Hurst and D.J. Neal had good moments, but nothing sustained. The receivers didn’t have a constant quarterback, which isn’t their fault, and it also wasn’t their fault that none of them could hold a candle to the magnificent Cooper. The fault of not developing or finding better receivers belongs to the staff.
Jerell Adams could affect games with his ability to keep bulling forward after a catch, but he wasn’t targeted nearly enough. He finished second on the team with 421 receiving yards and scored three touchdowns, which is two more than any receiver not named Cooper. His blocking was suspect and his fumble at Tennessee cost USC the game, but overall, he had a fine season.
Jacob “Dan” August disappeared after Spurrier resigned and Kyle Markway had three catches for the year. The position usually produced when it was asked to. It wasn’t asked often enough.
Despite a lot of seniors and experience, the line was so-so all season. Backs couldn’t find holes, running quarterbacks didn’t have much luck either and any passing quarterback usually had to make sure his running shoes were tightly laced. Tackles Mason Zandi and Brandon Shell had their moments, but mostly let too much pressure come from the edges. Zack Bailey had a fine year, taking over at center for a few games despite having never played the position before. The Gamecocks didn’t get much push and didn’t get much pass protection – which is sort of the point.
The numbers improved, USC collecting 20 sacks after 14 a year ago, but the overall production worsened. USC’s front four could be counted on to stand its ground and not really get bulldozed – but it had no consistent pass rush, couldn’t get off blocks and was too often playing catch-up to a runner who got past the first level.
Qua Lewis, thought to be a savior for the blitz, had three sacks. Darius English came on late and led the team with 4.5. Dante Sawyer and Kelsey Griffin had 2.5 each. Constant rotation didn’t help and USC, especially in the last three games, was removing players who had been playing well and replacing them with players who hadn’t. Hard to believe this line had the No. 1 NFL pick playing for it just two years ago.
As he was expected to, Skai Moore led the team in tackles for the third year in a row and finished with 111, also leading the team in tackles for loss and interceptions. He left everything on the field, and although T.J. Holloman replaced Jonathan Walton, he also had a fine season. They were the guys being counted on to stop runners who got past the line, and if they hadn’t had to drop back so much in pass coverage, they would have played better. That’s the scheme’s fault, not theirs.
You thought that this would have been learned last year. Defensive backs, especially not-that-talented defensive backs, can’t be expected to consistently make plays if there is no pass rush. With no blitz, the best option is to play them close to the line and hope they can stick with their men long enough. That light never turned on. USC constantly played back to not get beat deep, so it got beat shallow. Slants were open all game, every game, and when the receivers broke into the last level, the Gamecocks could not tackle.
Jordan Diggs remained on the field despite taking bad angles and not wrapping up. Al Harris simply could not cover men who were bigger, stronger and faster. Chris Lammons had at least four interceptions hit his hands and then hit the ground. Isaiah Johnson, the most experienced DB, was wasted as he was placed on the last line and told to make tackles instead of trying to pick off a pass. USC had 12 interceptions, and only four were from defensive backs.
What a season to have a great year. The Gamecocks’ specialists were terrific all season, even though Elliott Fry dropped a bit in consistency (20-of-28, but three attempts were beyond 50 yards). Fry’s main issue was not hitting from 40-49 yards (4-of-8). Still, he had a great season and punter Sean Kelly earned the team’s MVP award. Kelly, in his first year, gave the Gamecocks what they’ve needed for so long – a true field-flipper, able to place the ball wherever he wanted.
Kelly only averaged 44.3 yards, but his directional kicking was superb. Landon Ard denied kickoff returners by booming through the end zone all year, Drew Williams was perfect at holder and Rashad Fenton took a kickoff to the house. That alone was enough to earn a top grade, considering it seemed every other team in the country had done it since USC had last done it.
What a lousy season. The offense was broken nearly from the start, and could not score in the red zone. The defense, which vowed to fix things with a new coordinator and new talent, was worse than last year. While Cooper, Moore and the specialists were bright spots, the Gamecocks fell so far so fast that their legendary coach quit midseason, leaving the late year’s highlights as, “Well, they played hard.” There is something to be said for how the Gamecocks played in their final game, not giving up despite the circumstances. But that didn’t save the 11 games before it, which combined to end a stretch of 11 consecutive winning seasons.
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