It’s only the first week of November, but Senior Night is already upon South Carolina football.
When the Gamecocks honor their oldest players before Saturday’s game against Appalachian State, 25 men will walk across the field at Williams-Brice Stadium and be recognized, an assortment of graduate transfers, recruits from Steve Spurrier’s final class and the first recruits Will Muschamp convinced to come to USC.
That final group, a collection of 10 players from the class of 2016, each got a special mention from Muschamp during his weekly Tuesday press conference. That 2016 class was assembled on the fly after Muschamp was hired in December 2015 — in the span of two months, his coaching staff had to hurry to lock down the signatures of 24 enrollees while rebuilding the program from a state of disarray after the sudden departure of Spurrier.
That class wound up including some major contributors for the Gamecocks, including guys who will be honored Saturday — quarterback Jake Bentley, receiver Bryan Edwards, offensive lineman Sadarius Hutcherson, defensive lineman D.J. Wonnum and running back Rico Dowdle. Star defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw was also part of that group, though he had to spend a year in junior college first.
“They’re the ones that first came in when coach Muschamp and his coaching staff came in, so we just want to send them out the right way with a win. They’re just a good class to be around,” sophomore cornerback Israel Mukuamu said. “(Being Muschamp’s first class) means a lot. That means they trusted the coaches, they trusted the program and they really got the program going in the right way.”
With those players, South Carolina progressed from 3-9 to 6-7 to 9-4 by their sophomore year. Last season marked a step back with a 7-6 record and a discouraging bowl loss, but the Gamecocks entered this season with optimism and excitement despite a tough schedule.
On Tuesday, Muschamp acknowledged that the year has turned out to be far from an ideal send-off for the seniors — inconsistency and a 4-5 record have the Gamecocks battling to keep their bowl hopes alive, and the Mountaineers represent a steep challenge. But the bond between the coach and the first group of people he sold on his vision for USC remains strong.
“I think that these guys will always remain special to me and the staff that have been here, and (we) appreciate their contributions and you see, that’s why I purposely read through some of the things they’ve done off the field to show what they meant to this program. For the first time in school history last fall semester, our cumulative GPA as a football program was above a 3.0 and then spring semester we did it again. So, a lot of very positive things,” Muschamp said.
Kinlaw, who has defended Muschamp against outside criticism before, said he doesn’t remember the coach trying to sell him on a grand vision for the program and the success they would have. What he remembers is the personal commitment Muschamp made to him.
“For me, (Muschamp’s pitch) was go to Mississippi for a year and come back and play at South Carolina. I had a lot of work to do, but I knew that going into it and got it done, and now I’m here,” Kinlaw said. “I felt so loyal to him because he didn’t really have to send me to a JUCO, he didn’t have to do that for me.”
And when he did finally make it to South Carolina, he formed a connection with his classmates as they worked to form Muschamp’s program.
“Those guys, they came in a year before I came in, but other than that, it’s like a band of brothers honestly. Came in with these guys, known these guys for so long, just seeing them all the time, they really became my family over time,” Kinlaw said.
That process was also aided by the players who were recruited by Steve Spurrier, the last of whom will walk Saturday. Muschamp took time to specifically mention their story when discussing his seniors.
That group included the likes of Turner, who started at running back Muschamp’s first season, valuable punter Joseph Charlton and Donell Stanley, a sixth-year player and old hand on the offensive line.
“I really want to recognize those guys, because going through a coaching change is really difficult. You lose your head coach, you lose your coordinator, possibly (your) position coach. So many changes in the organization happen,” Muschamp said.
One of those players, tight end Kyle Markway acknowledged that it will be “weird” for the fifth- and sixth-year guys to be recognized nearly at the end of their long collegiate careers, but he also recognized the unique path he and his classmates have taken.
“Yeah this group has kinda been there for the whole Muschamp era, it’s kinda what came from Spurrier had to build up from that, so it’s kind of a special group,” Markway said.
Sophomore linebacker Ernest Jones came in well after they did, joining the team off that nine-win peak.
But coming from a far different perspective, he was in agreement with his older teammate.
“They mean a lot, especially these guys, you’re with these guys all the time and I just got here two years ago, but some of these guys, these are some of my brothers that I have for life, these guys will be at my wedding, they’ll be at stuff like that. It’s gonna be real good to send them out on a high note on Senior Night with a win,” he said.
Who: Appalachian State (7-1, 4-1 Sun Belt) at South Carolina (4-5, 3-4 SEC)
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
Line: USC by 5