In 2018, South Carolina baseball got a career year from catcher Hunter Taylor after he lost weight and became a “fast-twitch” athlete, as coach Mark Kingston liked to say.
Now, Taylor has graduated, but his potential replacement already has the fast-twitch part down.
Luke Berryhill comes to the Gamecocks after a year at Georgia Southern and a year at junior college, and thus far through fall scrimmages, he has impressed Kingston a lot.
“Berryhill’s making very rapid progress. Two weeks ago, I would have said he’s below average,” Kingston said Thursday. “Now I think he’s to the point that he’s an average D1, SEC-type catcher. But I think he has so much potential in terms of his tools, I think he’ll keep getting better.”
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Specifically, Kingston likes Berryhill’s power — he’s already hit three home runs in fall ball — and his speed. In those areas, he seems to have the edge over USC’s two other catchers: freshman Wes Clarke, an MLB draftee, and senior Chris Cullen.
“Berryhill has the most tools overall of all of them. He can also run a 6.7 (60-yard dash), he can steal a base for you if necessary, he can score from first on a double,” Kingston said. “That’s a position that, it’s not perfect, but there’s some things to work with.”
Cullen was an MLB draftee coming out of high school and was a highly regarded prospect in his junior year, but Taylor got the majority of work behind the plate and Cullen went undrafted after hitting just .190 in 32 starts. Towards the end of the year, he did get some playing time in the infield.
Clarke, meanwhile, was one of the top prospects from Kingston’s class of 2018 and was taken in the 40th round by the Milwaukee Brewers. His progress, however, has been delayed by a knee injury, and Kingston said he has yet to really test the rookie.
That leaves Berryhill, a high school All-American who Kingston describes as having all the raw talent to be a star on the collegiate level too. But as with many of South Carolina’s newcomers, the challenge will be translating those skills to the SEC.
“The power — he’s got raw power, but he’s learning how to use it in games,” Kingston said. “His blocking is improving ... and he’s fast-twitch so that should allow him to be a good blocker. He’s learning a new technique. His throwing is about average. We need to continue to work on that.”
Working against his progress is the fact Berryhill will not be able to participate in the Gamecocks’ scrimmage this Saturday against Georgia Tech, just as he couldn’t last weekend against NC State, because of NCAA transfer rules.
Besides Berryhill, every Gamecock will get plenty of playing time in Atlanta, Kingston said. The two teams will play 14 total innings, with every position player going at least five.
But those extra frames will be especially important for Kingston and his pitching coach Skylar Meade as they try to sort out a crowded field competing to claim weekend rotation spots. Sophomore Logan Chapman recently underwent Tommy John surgery, meaning all three weekend starting pitchers from the end of last season will be gone in 2019.
In their place, Kingston only offered one name as a likely replacement — sophomore Carmen Mlodzinski, who made several midweek starts in 2018.
“After (Carmen), we have a lot of guys trying to get in it,” Kingston said. “Nobody else at this point is just so good that we say, ‘He has to be in the rotation.’ We have a lot of guys that are on the cusp of it but nobody outside of Carmen that you say, he’s gotta be in the rotation.”