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 did offense earlier this week. Today, we’ll do defense and special teams.
The Gamecocks have two difference-makers on the defensive line — tackle Javon Kinlaw and end D.J. Wonnum. They need more, but we’ll start with Kinlaw and Wonnum.
Kinlaw, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound junior, has the kind of physical ability that could make him a top-10 NFL draft pick in the future. If that’s going to happen, he’ll need to continue the kind of progression he showed last year, when he showed up weighing 340 pounds in the summer but was starting by the fourth game. South Carolina would like to keep their defensive tackles under 40 snaps per game, but it’s going to be tempting to try to get more out of Kinlaw.
Wonnum, a 6-5, 258-pound junior, isn’t as physically talented as Kinlaw (few people on the team are) but he’s been more productive. The Georgia native has 7.5 sacks in two years and is the only proven pass-rushing commodity on the roster.
Maybe the biggest thing separating South Carolina from where it is now and where coach Will Muschamp would like it to be is that Kinlaw and Wonnum don’t have enough help. Kobe Smith and Keir Thomas are solid in the middle, and Aaron Sterling and Danny Fennell might be fine and Brad Johnson is getting better at end, but even if you add up all those names, you don’t come up with enough defensive linemen to have a formidable SEC rotation at the position. That takes between 10-12 players.
The scariest thing about 2018 for South Carolina fans is how much Muschamp talked this spring about freshman defensive linemen like Kingsley Enagbare and Tyreek Johnson. That might bode well for the future, but counting on up to four true freshmen defensive linemen is a bad sign for the present.
Junior middle linebacker T.J. Brunson is the third standout on the defense, along with Kinlaw and Wonnum. Brunson has 100 tackles in his first two seasons (88 last season), and I’m expecting that he’ll be a first-team All-SEC selection this year. With Skai Moore gone, everything will be funneled to Brunson, and he could have his first 100-tackle season. On top of that, the South Carolina coaches, who love Brunson, have asked him to be the vocal leader of the defense. In fact, they’ve asked everyone else to essentially hush and let Brunson take the lead. Brunson is well-suited for that role, but if he goes down with an injury, the defense will have a huge leadership void that no one will be ready to step into.
Senior Bryson Allen-Williams is back, and I’m not exactly sure what that means. For starters, it’s unclear where Allen-Williams will play. He’s an option at strongside linebacker and Buck defensive end and probably will play both. Muschamp and his staff have been trying to figure out how to best take advantage of Allen-Williams since they got here, and they haven’t quite found the best fit yet. The Georgia native still is looking for the breakout season so many expected when he picked the Gamecocks over Alabama and Georgia. Allen-Williams has 135 career tackles and 4.5 career sacks. It’s incumbent on South Carolina’s coaches to get him into a place he can be successful and get him in a rhythm there, and there’s reason to believe they can considering Allen-Williams’ best season was his only full season under Muschamp in 2016 (75 tackles, two sacks).
Sherrod Greene is the front-runner for the weakside linebacker spot. He can be a sideline-to-sideline player when he has the experience and system knowledge to go with his speed. Eldridge Thompson, a junior college transfer, could push Greene for that spot and has one only season left. Early enrollee Rosendo Louis is going to be good in the future. His problems for 2018 are that he’ll be a true freshman and he’s a natural middle linebacker, and that position belongs to Brunson until Brunson leaves.
What’s going on with Jamyest Williams? The jewel of the 2017 recruiting class ended up being South Carolina’s starting nickel back as a true freshman, then while he sat out spring practice because of a shoulder injury, Muschamp called Williams a safety. It might be that the Gamecocks don’t like Williams tackling enough to feel like he’s the best long-term fit at nickel back. Or it could be that South Carolina is just desperate for safeties. But here’s my theory. Without guys like Dante Sawyer, Chris Lammons and Skai Moore, who had a knack for creating turnovers, the Gamecocks defense is in bad need of ball skills. That’s Williams’ strong suit, and if moving him to safety gives him more chances to affect turnovers, then maybe it’s the right move even though the prospect of a 5-foot-8 safety scares some folks.
The rest of the safety position is in flux. Steven Montac is the only player Muschamp fully trusts at the position right now. Javon Charleston, who came to USC as a walk-on wide receiver, spent the spring as the starter. That’s a bad sign for depth at the position.
Keisean Nixon emerged in the spring as the top nickel back because of his combination of tackling skills and coverage skills, but that would leave South Carolina needing an outside cornerback if Williams ends up playing safety. Rashad Fenton is a solid starter at cornerback, but he needs to get more turnovers. He’s got two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in his career.
Redshirt freshman Tavyn Jackson seems to have had a hamstring injury since he arrived on campus. The Gamecocks need to get him healthy, because he can provide depth. The group of Jackson and true freshmen Israel Mukuamu, Jaycee Horn and Jonathan Gipson has to provide at least one person who can play meaningful snaps this fall.
Sophomore Parker White left spring practice as the starting place kicker, but graduate transfer Shane Hynes enters school this summer. The Gamecocks have given Hynes a scholarship, which college coaches generally don’t do with kickers unless they are expecting major contributions, but Hynes statistics at his last stop, Kent State, weren’t eye-popping. He was 8-of-12 last year and 30-of-44 in his career there. Confidence will be key for whoever wins the job, so South Carolina fans should root for whoever wins the job to hit some kicks early and get on a roll.
At punter, junior Joseph Charlton is a known commodity. He was 30th in the nation last year with a 43.6-yard average and his hang time has consistently improved.
The return game will be energized by the return of Deebo Samuel, and one of the most interesting things of the fall will be watching other coaches try to keep the ball away from Samuel on kickoffs while South Carolina assistant Coleman Hutzler tries to figure out ways to make sure Samuel can get his hands on the kick. Last year, Samuel returned two kicks. He took both of them 97 yards for touchdowns.
Samuel probably won’t return punts, though. Hutzler has indicated he’s not comfortable with Samuel fielding punts because it’s a completely different skill set. While kickoff returners generally have as much as three seconds between them and the closest defender when they catch the ball, punt returners often have to secure the ball with a defender right in their face. That puts an extra premium on ability to secure the ball, and then short-space quickness. Williams was a dynamic punt returner in high school and probably will get a shot there this fall, but the position is up for grabs right now.