South Carolina’s true freshman football players aren’t allowed by their coach to speak to the media, but they’ve had plenty to say about the Gamecocks season on Saturdays.
South Carolina’s the only team in the country whose leading passer and rusher are both true freshmen. The Gamecocks (6-5) enter Saturday’s game against No. 4 Clemson with first- or second-year players carrying almost all of the load offensively.
“It’s incredible to look at guys who were in high school last year, and they are competing at a high level,” senior offensive lineman Mason Zandi said. “I owe them so much for making this season possible, for not quitting, because it would have been easy, but to step up, handle situations maturely and make plays when we needed to make plays.”
Freshman Jake Bentley has been South Carolina’s starting quarterback for the past five games and has completed 66 percent of his passes for 989 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. He has led the Gamecocks to four victories, although another true freshman has had a big hand in that.
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Running back Rico Dowdle missed the first five games with a groin injury. He made his debut on Oct. 1 against Texas A&M, and had nine carries for 47 yards. He made his first career start the next week against Georgia and has run for 637 yards and six touchdowns since. Dowdle’s coming off a career-best 226 yards against Western Carolina, the sixth-best single-game rushing total in school history.
“I wouldn’t say they are veterans, but it doesn’t feel like anyone is babysitting or anything like that,” Zandi said. “We have the mentality of next man up, let’s play football. The future at the University of South Carolina is extremely bright with the guys being so young and playing so well.”
Bentley and Dowdle are the most prominent of the Gamecocks’ freshmen, but they are far from the only young players contributing. The team’s second-leading rusher is redshirt freshman A.J. Turner, and its top six receivers are underclassmen.
“They come in there and do their job and do it just as well as everybody else,” center Alan Knott said. “We don’t really think about (their age).”
Ninety-two percent of South Carolina’s all-purpose yards (4,126 of 4,486) have been gained by underclassmen, and 24 of its 27 touchdowns have been scored by underclassmen. Junior running back David Williams is the only upperclassman with a touchdown this season.
All the youth bodes well for South Carolina’s future, but it also limits what the Gamecocks can do in the present.
“You get into a fine line as a coach of, ‘Are we doing enough to keep the defense off balance? Are we doing too much that our players can’t handle it?’ ” coach Will Muschamp said.
The Gamecocks are last in the SEC in scoring (20.4 ppg) and 13th in the conference in total offense (347.2 ypg).
“You can’t have your guys thinking on the field,” Muschamp said. “They need to be reacting and playing fast, but you need to do enough to give the opposition some issues.”
Playing like veterans
A look at USC’s star freshmen:
Key stats: In five games, he has a 4-1 record, completing 66 percent of his passes for 989 yards, six touchdowns and one interception .
Key stats: In six games, he has 684 yards rushing and six TDs. He had a career-best 226 yards against Western Carolina, USC’s sixth-best rushing total ever.