Josh Kendall

‘Now it’s our turn:’ USC football hoping to build on momentum

Will Muschamp’s “pregame” speech started at 11:48 and ended short of 11:49 on Saturday morning.

“Strain and compete,” South Carolina’s second-year football coach told his players in the locker room prior to the spring Garnet and Black game in Williams-Brice Stadium. “This is the first look at the 2017 Gamecocks. Let’s go put on a show.”

With that, South Carolina players went out to begin what would be a 35-24 victory for the Black squad over the Garnet in front of an announced crowd of 12,345 fans. For the second year in a row, Muschamp allowed several local media members access to every aspect of the preparation for and playing of the game.

I spent the first half on the Garnet sideline, which consisted of the first-team defense and was in the charge of frenetic defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson. It’s there that the story of South Carolina’s 2017 season will be determined, as Saturday’s 59 combined points and 908 yards of total offense show.

“Offensively, we are a little further along, which is good, should be with the returning guys we have,” Muschamp said after the game. “Defensively, we have some unknowns as we go into fall camp from the standpoint of some guys who are not on campus are going to need to help us. They are going to need to play for us. That’s not always good leaving spring ball, but that is what it is.”

Robinson has some issues on the front line and back end of his defense. On the second snap of the game, cornerback Jamarcus King was in perfect position but was muscled away by wide receiver Bryan Edwards, who hauled in a 68-yard touchdown reception.

After a brief and emphatic exhortation, Robinson sprinted down the sideline and made the next call. There wasn’t time to be worried about the fall because things were moving fast on the sideline. Unlike a regular game (or last year’s spring game), the Gamecocks coaches didn’t use headsets during the game, meaning lots of yelling.

Someone is constantly communicating something to Robinson, whether it be the down and distance, whether the offense is going to a faster pace or what player is injured and when he might be able to return.

The coaches yell things like “Victor Rabbit” and “Short Ocho” and everyone seems to know what they are talking about, even if they don’t always execute them perfectly. The execution didn’t happen enough for the defensive coaches, especially on the defensive line, and that was communicated bluntly throughout the game.

There were bright spots, including a moment where linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler rode middle linebacker T.J. Brunson piggyback to the team bench in celebration yelling “push the combo,” in a manner indicating Brunson did that successfully.

Maybe the most telling thing on the defensive sideline was the respect the players have for new running back Ty’Son Williams, a North Carolina transfer eligible to play for the first time this fall. Williams was the game’s leading rusher with 83 yards on 11 carries. When Williams slipped starting defensive back Steven Montac late in the second quarter, there were reflexive gasps from Montac’s defensive teammates on the sideline.

Most of the team’s frontline players were finished by halftime and some, like wide receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end Hayden Hurst, never got their started despite being healthy. The coaching staff didn’t want to risk any injury to two players they think are going to help mightily in the fall.

In their absence, Edwards led the game in receiving with four catches for 111 yards, and Kiel Pollard added 91 yards on eight catches. Starting running back Rico Dowdle finished with 30 yards on three carries.

After the game, Muschamp told his team he was pleased with their effort and alluded to the university’s two Final Four basketball teams that were in action this weekend.

“Now we have to do something. It’s our turn,” he said.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC