South Carolina’s 2018 football season began Thursday as the Gamecocks reported for fall camp. The team will take the practice field for the first time Friday morning, and here are five things we’ll be watching as practice gets underway.
South Carolina found a rhythm at times with its new, faster offense against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. That’s not the same as ingraining the system into every player in the rotation, and that’s what spring practice and this fall were about. Junior quarterback Jake Bentley acknowledged that the team’s player-run practices this summer showed the offense isn’t second nature yet. “It has been different,” Bentley said. “There have been some bumps in the road as we put it in, I think it’s going to be real big for us. The guys love it.” Bentley especially does, he said. “I think it’s been one of the best things to happen to me in my college career,” he said. The next month is when the Gamecocks must get the remaining kinks out of their execution.
Running back rotation
Ty’Son Williams started the Outback Bowl. Rico Dowdle was the leading rusher in the Outback Bowl. A.J. Turner started more games than either of them in the regular season and was the team’s leading rusher in 2017 with 531 yards. Will a starting running back ever step forward? South Carolina coaches will insist they are fine going with the hot-hand rotation (playing whoever practices the best and is performing best in a particular game), but that system hasn’t worked the last two seasons. Only twice last year did the Gamecocks’ leading rusher have more than 100 yards, and both times it was Turner. South Carolina, which finished 12th in the SEC in rushing a year ago, needs a clear star to emerge this fall.
Defensive line depth
Coach Will Muschamp feels pretty good about starting defensive linemen Javon Kinlaw, Keir Thomas, Aaron Sterling and D.J. Wonnum, but he also knows he needs at least eight, and more like 10, defensive linemen in a rotation to play the kind of defense he wants to play this year. Tackle Kobe Smith feels like a solid fifth defensive lineman, but the rest of the rotation is mostly question marks. How much Buck will Bryson Allen-Williams play? Is Daniel Fennell ready to take the next step? Will Shameik Blackshear ever make an impact? How good can freshmen like J.J. Enagbare, Jabari Ellis, Tyreek Johnson and Rick Sandidge be?
Jamyest Williams and Tavyn Jackson started their careers being lauded for their potential at cornerback. They’ll both start this fall working at safety. That’s an indication of the Gamecocks’ lack of depth at the position. Steven Montac is the only proven player at the position. Javon Charleston, who exited spring listed as a starter, is suspended because of an offseason arrest. Jaylin Dickerson, who has shown lots of promise on the practice field, has yet to play because of a shoulder injury. Rice graduate transfer J.T. Ibe and freshman and converted high school quarterback R.J. Roderick also are intriguing options at that position.
No one wants to think about it, much less talk about it, but the Gamecocks can’t afford many preseason injuries. Everyone will be watching how well senior wide receiver Deebo Samuel is moving in his return from a broken leg. Allen-Williams (shoulder), Dickerson (shoulder) and Williams (shoulder) also will be getting into full contact work for the first time in a while. In terms of players South Carolina can least afford to lose (outside of quarterback Jake Bentley, who has very little chance of being injured in the practice), middle linebacker T.J. Brunson is at the top of the list. Brunson is essentially indispensable.