Josh Kendall

Improving run game No. 1 goal for Gamecocks offense

Birmingham Bowl preview: 3 things we're watching as USC faces USF

The State's Josh Kendall previews South Carolina's Birmingham Bowl matchup against the South Florida Bulls.
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The State's Josh Kendall previews South Carolina's Birmingham Bowl matchup against the South Florida Bulls.

The pieces for the 2017 South Carolina offense are in place.

Quarterback Jake Bentley, running back Rico Dowdle and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards all return. Those pieces give the Gamecocks offense plenty of potential for next season.

Now about the production.

South Carolina’s offense made drastic improvements in the second half of the season – going from 14 points to 24.5 points per game and 305 yards to 368 yards per game – but the final numbers still weren’t good, especially in the run game.

The Gamecocks finished the regular season last in the SEC and 120th in the nation in scoring with 19.3 points per game. Their run game (138 yards per game) ranked 13th in the SEC and 106th in the country.

“The most glaring issue (on offense) is the ability to run the ball consistently,” coach Will Muschamp said.

South Carolina averaged 78.3 yards rushing in its six losses this season. It failed to top 50 yards rushing in three of those games, Mississippi State (34), Georgia (30) and Florida (43).

“Right now, the emphasis is running the ball when they know we’re going to run the ball,” offensive lineman Cory Helms said. “I think if we can do that, there will be a lot of improvements.”

The Gamecocks will hire a new offensive line coach (to replace Shawn Elliott, who left to become head coach at Georgia State) after Jan. 1 and that person could bring some fresh ideas to South Carolina’s running game, but Muschamp made clear last week he doesn’t believe the scheme is the problem.

“We are running an inside zone, we are running and outside, we are running a down and around scheme, a counter scheme and a power scheme,” Muschamp said. “Most everybody in college football is running a lot of the same things. We need to improve on how we are doing it.”

Four of the team’s five starting offensive linemen will return in 2017, as will veteran and experienced reserves like tackles D.J. Park and Blake Camper and guard Donnell Stanley.

It is chiefly the responsibilities of those players to improve the Gamecocks’ run game, starting left guard Zack Bailey said.

“Get stronger, get faster, be more downhill and just blow people up,” Bailey said.

Is it really that simple?

“To me it is,” Bailey said. “Whether we pass or run, I am here to dominate the person on the other side of the line. That’s my goal every single day.”

That will become easier as the rest of South Carolina’s offensive personnel gains more experience. Playing three quarterbacks, two of whom were true freshmen, forced the Gamecocks to use a silent snap count for much of the season, which eliminated what is traditionally an advantage for offensive linemen who get a split-second head start on the defensive linemen when the snap count can be varied and is unpredictable.

“You can’t coach experience, and experience is everything,” senior left tackle Mason Zandi said. “As this team gets older and develops a more veteran mentality, exciting things are going to happen.”

South Carolina finished the regular season No. 104 in the nation in yards per carry with 3.78. (Its opponent in Thursday’s Birmingham Bowl, South Florida, led the nation with 6.71 yards per carry.)

“I feel like we have to have a competitive edge,” said freshman running back A.J. Turner, who is second on the team with 448 yards on 106 carries. “I feel like sometimes we are not as competitive as we should be. I think that’s what we’re working on now, just making everything a competition. We just have to compete more, make it more important to us.”

Birmingham Bowl

Who: South Carolina (6-6) vs. South Florida (10-2)

When: 2 p.m., Thursday

Where: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.

TV: ESPN

Line: USF by 10

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