On the evening of Aug. 13, Will Muschamp addressed his team following the its first preseason scrimmage. It was a pivotal practice for South Carolina, and it brought a thought to mind for the Gamecocks first-year coach.
“I said, ‘Raise your hands if in your South Carolina career you have started more than 12 games,’ ” Muschamp said. “I think I had six guys raise their hand. ... It was scary.”
South Carolina’s less than two weeks from opening the season against Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., and the job of preparing the Gamecocks for that challenge is even greater than normal because of the team’s inexperience, Muschamp said. It’s a point that’s driven home in one way or another on an almost daily basis.
“I asked (freshman wide receiver) Randrecous Davis, ‘What’s the most people you have played in front of?’ He said, ‘Probably about 8,000,’ ” Muschamp said. “I said, ‘There will be that many in the bathroom at halftime, bud.’ ”
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South Carolina ranks 108th in the nation and 12th in the SEC in Phil Steele’s annual Experience Chart, which measures five factors to determine the most and least veteran teams in the country. The Commodores, who are in their third season under coach Derek Mason, are 35th in the nation and third in the SEC on the Experience Chart.
“There are so many unknowns on our football team that it creates a little angst for me because I don’t know how these guys are going to respond,” Muschamp said.
The Gamecocks’ experience level has suffered hits even since Steele’s numbers were calculated.
The most experienced player on the team based on career starts, linebacker Skai Moore, won’t play this season with a neck injury. The second-most experienced player, cornerback Rico McWilliams, currently isn’t with the team because of an excused absence to handle personal matters. The third player on the list, offensive lineman Alan Knott, might not start because a hand injury has bumped him, at least currently, from center to guard, where he might not crack the starting lineup.
South Carolina lists 12 returning starters, and even that modest number is deceiving. Two of those are specialists and one is walk-on wide receiver Matrick Belton, who won’t start this season. Ole Miss is the only team in the SEC with fewer returning offensive and defensive starters than the Gamecocks.
Of the 22 players expected to start on defense and offense this season, only eight have started more than five games in college – quarterback Perry Orth, linebackers T.J. Holloman and Jonathan Walton, defensive end Marquavius Lewis, cornerback Chris Lammons, offensive lineman Mason Zandi, safety Chaz Elder and defensive end Darius English.
South Carolina’s practices have been stuffed with one-minute drives, end-of-game situations, even mock halftimes in an attempt to speed up the learning curve.
“If you do things fast all the time, if you walk through fast, if you lift weights fast, if you meet fast, if you think fast, that becomes accustomed to you and becomes who you are,” Muschamp said. “We don’t always do that, but a lot of that is not their fault. It’s just not ingrained to do things fast all the time. I am not one of those guys who believes you flip a switch on game day and all of a sudden it’s going to happen.”
Fifty-five percent of the Gamecocks’ rushing yards and 73 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago are gone. Their leading returning rusher is a quarterback who’s now a wide receiver (Lorenzo Nunez).
The inexperience of the team is evident to many of the team’s assistant coaches in their position meeting rooms every day. Defensive line coach Lance Thompson said Lewis is the only one of his players who “has played any time that makes a difference.”
“That’s the challenge is getting those guys ready for primetime and take the next step,” he said.
Pat Washington doesn’t have a tight end who’s an upperclassman. More than half of Bryan McClendon’s regular rotation at wide receiver could be true freshmen. The running back room has a junior who might have lost his starting job, a reshirt freshman and two former walk-ons.
Muschamp was asked recently if he thinks his team’s on track to be ready for the opener.
“It’s hard to test for game day in our league, especially on the road, so I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll let you know at about 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 1.”
South Carolina’s ranks 13th in the 14-team SEC based on the number of starters returning on offense and defense.
- LSU – 17
- Tennessee – 17
- Vanderbilt -- 16
- Kentucky -- 15
- Arkansas – 14
- Georgia -- 14
- Auburn – 13
- Missouri – 13
- Texas A&M -- 12
- Alabama – 11
- Mississippi State -- 11
- Florida – 10
- South Carolina -- 9
- Ole Miss -- 8