People ask me often what I think about South Carolina’s football team, which makes perfect sense considering it’s my job to know things, or at least think things, about the Gamecocks.
In that spirit, and since we have 21 long weeks between now and the Sept. 1 season opener against Coastal Carolina, I thought I’d write up everything I think I know about South Carolina football after the Gamecocks’ 2018 spring practice. This might get a little wordy, forgive me.
We'll start with offense today and go from there.
Junior Jake Bentley clearly will be the starting quarterback. Senior Michael Scarnecchia has earned the trust of the coaches and also understands he’s the just-in-case guy. Freshmen Jay Urich and Dakereon Joyner aren’t ready to contribute.
And, here’s the thing about Bentley: I don’t get the angst around him as the starting quarterback. Yes, he missed some passes in 2017. Yes, his touchdown-to-interception ratio (27-to-16 for his career) isn’t great, but to think the Gamecocks need to find a different or better option is silly. Bentley has started 20 consecutive games. South Carolina is 13-7 in that time. His career completion percentage is 63.4, which would have ranked 24th in the nation last year, and he’s grown very comfortable in the Gamecocks’ faster offensive system.
At 6-foot-4, it’s possible (not likely, but possible) that Bentley could have the type of season that would lead him to skip his final year of college and enter the NFL draft early. People who believe that South Carolina would be better off if Bentley weren’t the starter better hope they don’t get their wish.
What was billed (by people including myself) as a potential three-headed monster at tailback has not developed into that. Instead, A.J. Turner, Rico Dowdle and Ty’Son Williams enter their junior seasons with South Carolina still looking for a lead running back, or a running game at all, for that matter.
The Gamecocks have finished 13th and 14th in the SEC in yards per carry in coach Will Muschamp’s first two seasons, and South Carolina’s inability to establish anything resembling a consistent ground game is a big reason Muschamp is fully committed to an up-tempo offense this year. It looks like the Gamecocks have decided they can’t run the ball effectively against the types of teams they would like to measure themselves against (Alabama, Clemson and Georgia) with a traditional running attack, and I think they’re right.
South Carolina is entering the 10th (heck, maybe the 50th) consecutive season in which it expects its offensive line to be better than it was the year before. It’s also on a pretty long streak of being wrong about, or at least not right enough about, that prediction.
Gamecocks offensive line coach Eric Wolford made an interesting statement this spring, saying that offensive line coaches across the country are becoming alarmed at the rate at which defensive line personnel is eclipsing offensive line personnel. This is not excuse-making by Wolford. It’s clear every Saturday that more of the athletic big guys are playing on defensive lines than offensive lines.
The Gamecocks appear to have landed on five players up front that they like this year, but they need a big and consistent year from Zack Bailey to reach their potential. The move of 318-pound Donell Stanley to center gives the Gamecocks more bulk than they’ve had at the position in a while, which could help shore up their inside zone run, which has been handicapped of late by an inability to get push in the middle of the offensive line. Depth is an issue, though, a big issue. It looks like Malik Young is the sixth offensive lineman at the moment. Muschamp says nice things about Young, but the fact that he briefly moved him to defensive line this spring speaks louder than those words.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
It’s hard to quantify the value of Deebo Samuel’s return. Actually, maybe it’s not that hard. South Carolina averaged 33 points in the two games he finished last year and 20.7 points in the 11 games he did not. Samuel was, basically, healthy this spring, but Muschamp kept him out of all contact drills. Muschamp stopped just short of wrapping Samuel in bubble wrap, and he might actually do that at some point this offseason. Samuel is one of the most dynamic players in the SEC and will be motivated this year to prove to NFL scouts that those two games last year were no joke.
The Gamecocks also have the best No. 2 wide receiver in the SEC in Bryan Edwards. He did a fair impression of a No. 1 wide receiver last year with Samuel out, and he’ll be able to take advantage of all the attention Samuel gets this year. The rest of the pass-catching options engender less confidence. Yes, OrTre Smith and Shi Smith have the look of the future, but both need to make strides in consistency to fill out the numbers the Gamecocks need at wide receiver. Randrecous Davis has talent but can’t get healthy to get on the field. In short, South Carolina needs more wide receivers.
At tight end, Jacob August will get more passes his way than people think, but neither he nor K.C. Crosby nor Kiel Pollard, nor anybody else, is going to replace Hayden Hurst.