Josh Kendall

Gamecocks’ 2016 had forward progress no matter how you slice it

jkendall@thestate.com

There no sense in trying to grade, judge or label Will Muschamp’s first year as South Carolina’s head coach right now.

Three days removed from its end, it looks simply like what it was – a Frankenstein of a season, cobbled together with some good things and some bad things all shoved into one functioning but imperfect, and at times plain ugly, body of work.

What it all means and how it all will be remembered is impossible to know at the moment. That will be determined by what Muschamp and the Gamecocks build on top of it.

South Carolina finished the season 6-7 with Thursday’s 46-39 overtime loss to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl. It marked the school’s first back-to-back losing seasons since Lou Holtz’s 2002 and 2003 teams posted 5-7 records. Nobody recognizes 6-7 teams at the halftime of games decades into the future, but that doesn’t mean this group can’t ultimately be remembered well.

The Gamecocks won twice as many games in 2016 and they won in 2015. Kentucky was the only other team in the SEC that had a chance to match a three-win improvement this season, but the Wildcats lost 33-18 to Georgia Tech in the Taxslayer Bowl on Saturday.

That’s forward progress no matter how you slice it, but it still leaves South Carolina well short of where it wants to go and where it was just three seasons ago. Gamecocks linebacker Jonathan Walton, who played his final game Thursday, acknowledged before the Birmingham Bowl that those three straight 11-win seasons “seem like 100 years ago.”

“We had that experience. We loved that experience, and now we’re in a whole different spot,” he said. “So you have to work back up to that.”

That work will begin in January and will be grueling both Muschamp and his returning players have promised. There was enough good and bad in the last 13 games that the Gamecocks can undertake that effort with both the hope that they can get better and the reality that they must fresh in their mind.

The hope at the moment is mostly on the offensive side of the ball.

First, there’s Jake Bentley. The freshman quarterback was not allowed to speak to the media all season but his play since being inserted as the starter midway through the year spoke volumes. It wasn’t all good. Even while throwing for a career-best 390 yards against South Florida, he had three critical turnovers, but it would be foolish to expect a true freshman summer enrollee to be a finished product.

What Bentley did show is enough talent and enough ‘It’ that he’s already established himself as the best quarterback of Muschamp’s head coaching career, and considering quarterback play has been the wind in Muschamp’s face since he became a head coach, that’s no small thing to have established in his first season.

“When Jake became the starter, you could tell he was a leader,” sophomore wide receiver Deebo Samuel said.

Samuel is another shiny spot on this season. The sophomore caught 14 passes for 190 yards against the Bulls and leads a host of other young offensive playmakers back for the 2017 season. Tight ends Hayden Hurst and K.C. Crosby, running backs Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner and wide receivers Bryan Edwards and Randrecous Davis (albeit in very limited work in Davis’ case) have shown enough to be a heck of a supporting cast for the Gamecocks’ young quarterback.

“I think we have the pieces next year,” said Cory Helms, one of four offensive line starters who will return next season. “It’s going to take a tough offseason because we were inconsistent at times this year, but we stay healthy and have a good offseason, I think it could be special.”

The reality rests most heavily on the defense. It digressed in the final five games of the season with its often fatal flaws standing out starkly against competition with top-notch offensive personnel and spread systems. On top of that, it loses four solid if not spectacular starters, defensive ends Darius English and Marquavius Lewis and linebacker T.J. Holloman and Walton.

“We have to focus more on the little things, and that starts when we get back in January. These feelings of the past two games, that has to motivate us,” said junior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, who will be charged with leading the defense next season. “We only are going to get better. We just have to keep improving.”

They must.

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