Josh Kendall

It’s been the biggest pitfall for Will Muschamp’s offense. How USC aims to fix it

No one familiar with South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp’s career will be shocked to learn he’s harping on the running game this spring.

“That’s his No. 1 thing,” Gamecocks guard Sadarius Hutcherson said.

Specifically, Muschamp remains frustrated by his team’s inability to run the ball effectively against good teams. South Carolina played four teams last year that finished the season with a run defense ranked in the top 31 nationally. It averaged 3.16 yards per carry (348 yards on 110 carries) against those teams.

“Against good teams we really didn’t do all that well. Anybody can see that,” center Donell Stanley said. “We have to take the next step and that’s what he wants, as on offensive line, as running backs, as an entire offense. We need to be able to run the ball against good teams.”

The Gamecocks were 91st in the nation last year in rushing against Top 25 teams, a statistic that was magnified that they played five ranked teams, as many as any team in the country. South Carolina averaged 99 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry in those games. And lost all five times.

“We have struggled to maintain balance against good defenses in our league,” Muschamp said.

The fix will not be easy. It includes “finishing blocks,” offensive line coach Eric Wolford said.

“There’s been a big emphasis on finishing blocks and improving the run game here this spring,” Wolford said. “A lot of times we get on blocks and against good people they are able to get off blocks. We want to work on maintaining that.”

The Gamecocks return three of last year’s starting five on the offensive line and look to be replacing Dennis Daley and Zack Bailey with Eric Douglas and Hank Manos. All the offensive linemen are stronger than they were a year ago, Stanley said.

“Everybody’s body is changing,” he said. “Everybody’s got the mindset of wanting to run the ball. As an o-line we love that and we love that challenge, and I appreciate Coach Muschamp for calling us out on it because he’s 100 percent correct.”

Muschamp also placed plenty of responsibility on the running backs. South Carolina, which hired Thomas Brown to coach running backs in the offseason, returns Rico Dowdle, Mon Denson and Deshaun Fenwick from a year ago and could get a boost from the addition of freshmen Lavonte Valentine and Kevin Harris. Dowdle has missed the first five spring practices due to injury.

“In our league, you’re not going to be able to block everybody,” Muschamp said. “There is going to be a free hat in the box at some point and you have to be able to make a guy miss and that’s something we need to be able to do better consistently.”

That comes down to “mindset,” quarterback Jake Bentley said.

“I think it’s getting creative, getting creative in our play-calling, getting creative in how we block some things, but I also think it’s a mindset thing and understanding that if it’s third-and-1, third-and-2 that we have to go get the first down no matter what it takes,” Bentley said. “I think guys are really developing that mindset and really working hard.”

Josh Kendall has covered SEC football for almost 20 years. He has covered the Gamecocks since the 2010 season. Have a question? Shoot him an email or find him on Twitter, and he’ll be happy to respond.