With 10 practices down in South Carolina football’s August camp, here are 10 things we’ve learned thus far:
Deebo is back
Senior wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who missed 10 games last year because of a broken leg and was limited during spring practice while he returned to full strength, is participating fully in fall camp, and he looks good. “He looks powerful,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “He had some really nice runs after the catch (in Monday’s scrimmage), ran through some tackles. I think he looks very explosive.” Samuel averaged 24.9 yards every time he touched the ball last year. That number was inflated by two 97-yard kickoff returns, but the fact remains that he can be a difference-maker for South Carolina’s offense in 2018.
Line depth is an issue
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The Gamecocks feel good about their starting offensive and defensive lines. The reserves on both sides of the ball are more of a question mark. South Carolina has six proven offensive linemen in Donell Stanley, Sadarius Hutcherson, Zack Bailey, Blake Camper, Dennis Daley and Malik Young. Jordan Rhodes, Chandler Farrell and Dylan Wonnum have drawn praise in camp but still have progress to make. At defensive tackle, Muschamp says,“Javon Kinlaw and Keir Thomas and Kobe Smith are all SEC defensive tackles.” That’s great, but they’ll need more than three. Freshmen J.J. Enagbare, Rick Sandidge and Jabari Ellis all might play this year. At defensive end, D.J. Wonnum and Aaron Sterling will start, but the Gamecocks need a big step from Daniel Fennell, Brad Johnson and Shameik Blackshear.
Safety position still shuffling
On Saturday, Muschamp was displeased with his safeties. “Steven Montac has had a really good camp at safety. Other than that, we are struggling,” he said. On Monday, Muschamp felt better, but the change in his mood seemed to require moving Texas A&M transfer Nick Harvey into more safety reps. Harvey had been playing mostly cornerback and nickel back early in camp. “Nick Harvey and Jamyest Williams both at safety played well, and we needed them to improve,” Muschamp said Monday. One of those players will have to develop into the starter alongside Montac, with the other probably rotating between nickel back and third safety. That is, unless freshman cornerback Jaycee Horn, who has drawn lots of praise in the past week, can lock up a spot as the third cornerback. R.J. Roderick and Jaylin Dickerson could provide safety depth as well.
More freshmen will play this year
An NCAA rule change that allows players to participate in four or fewer games without using a year of eligibility means that every healthy true freshman on the roster is likely to play at some point this season. That doesn’t mean that all of them will be asked to contribute in crucial times, but plenty of them will. Ellis, Enagbare and Sandidge will be needed for defensive-line depth. Horn has made enough plays to get a long look in coverage situations. Rosendo Louis and Ernest Jones both have been slowed by camp injuries but could be second-teamers at some point and have good special-teams ability. Wide receiver Josh Vann seems to be headed in the right direction to break into the regular rotation.
Optimism abounds at running back
Muschamp has said good things about his three-man running back rotation of Rico Dowdle, Ty’Son Williams and A.J. Turner. “It’s been fun to watch those guys compete and get after it,” the coach said after Monday’s scrimmage, however there has been optimism before that resulted in very little more. The Gamecocks, who finished 12th in the SEC in rushing last season, want to average 5.5 yards per carry this season. Dowdle, a junior, says he’s healthier now that at any point in his college career, but none of the talk matters much until the games start in September.
The linebacker situation is evolving
The Gamecocks were dealt a blow through a chunk of camp when promising freshman linebacker Rosendo Louis was knocked out with a shoulder injury — he should be back soon. The Gamecocks are developing an intriguing group at the position. T.J. Brunson is an anchor and returning starter in the middle. Sherrod Greene and Eldridge Thompson are battling to hold down the weakside spot. Behind them, freshman Ernest Jones is coming along. It’s been enough that Bryson Allen-Williams, who played weakside in 2015, hasn’t been needed to shore up either of the top to linebacker spots and is focused on strongside and Buck.
No tight end has emerged from pack
South Carolina had a luxury the past two years with an NFL tight end in Hayden Hurst who could line up most anywhere. With him gone, there are five or six options to replace him, but not much indication if one player steps up as the main guy. Muschamp mentioned K.C. Crosby and Kiel Pollard as players who can work in the box and split out, allowing for formation versatility. But Jacob August is the most veteran and best blocking option, while Evan Hinson might have the most receiving talent.
The kicker job remains up for grabs
Muschamp called the battle between Parker White, Shane Hynes and Alex Woznick a “good competition” after Monday’s scrimmage. He didn’t tip his hand about who might be leading. White had an up-and-down first season as a starter, but was at least reliable inside 40 yards. Woznick lost the job after a bad first few games, and Hynes was brought in from Kent State on scholarship after posting only OK numbers.
Injuries are piling up, but the serious ones have been limited
Losing Tyreek Johnson and Caleb Kinlaw meant the Gamecocks are without a promising freshman tackle and a veteran special teams ace. It’s a hard break for Kinlaw personally, but beyond that, USC has mostly avoided big injuries. Players such as Lewis (shoulder), Jesus Gibbs (knee scope), Lavonte Valentine (knee), Chad Terrell (knee) Tavyn Jackson (heat issues), J.T. Ibe (hip issues), Chavis Dawkins (high ankle sprain) and Wyatt Campbell (knee) have missed time. Others who’ve come back from injury include Jabari Ellis (knee scope), Josh Vann (shoulder), Eldridge Thompson (hamstring) and Brad Johnson (hamstring)
The offense should look a good bit different
Thus far, Gamecocks players and coaches are talking a good game about the up-tempo approach Bryan McClendon promised to install. Muschamp said it’s benefited the defense team overall in practice. Players have said they like it and Jake Bentley said the scheme will allow for more deep balls and more risk-taking. There has been talk of this before, and it hasn’t come to fruition. But during talking season, it seems things are on their way.