Previews 2015: South Carolina Gamecocks
Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (FL, C, RG, RT)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (RDE, RDT, MLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected Overall Record: 7-5 (UGA, UM, LSU, TAM, UT)
Projected SEC Record: 3-5 (UGA, UM, LSU, TAM, UT)
Projected SEC East Record: 3-3 (UGA, UM, UT)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Fr
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Vg
Mediocre, thy name is South Carolina. The Gamecocks enter the 2015 season being average almost across the board, as graduation and a handful of recruiting misevaluations have limited the Cocks’ ceiling for the coming year. This season will inform a lot of the discussion going forward about Steve Spurrier’s tenure and ultimate retirement from the game. It’s unlikely he wants to helm a South Carolina team stuck in mediocrity, but that’s where the Gamecocks are headed if the defense doesn’t get markedly better this year.
Steve Spurrier has morphed from a throw-it-everywhere kind of coach 20 years ago, to the leader of an offense that tries to achieve balance and establish power on the ground. While South Carolina became more of a passing team in 2014, that had more to do with weapons in the receiver corps and a veteran quarterback than it did a change in philosophy. For 2015, look for a more conservative South Carolina. The Gamecocks are having trouble finding a suitable quarterback, and skill players that can make a difference are hard to come by on this roster.
Following simple year-to-year progression, it would seem sophomore Connor Mitch would be in line for the job. Mitch has prototypical size and arm strength for elite quarterbacks, but he didn’t exactly grab the job in the spring. Mitch’s inability to separate himself from the pack has drawn Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and Lorenzo Nunez into the mix. Orth, a junior, is a walk-on and lacks a lot of the raw skills that Mitch seems to possess. Scarnecchia redshirted last year and was not considered an elite recruit coming out of high school the year before. Nunez, a true freshman, definitely has the resume, but he didn’t join the team until the summer and the learning curve will be steep. If Nunez can win the job, it would give South Carolina a true dual-threat presence at the position. There are some who want Spurrier to consider playing receiver Pharoh Cooper here, and Cooper likely will take on a Wildcat role from time to time. But putting Cooper under center takes away South Carolina’s only real downfield threat, and Cooper isn’t an elite passing talent.
Brandon Wilds is an enigma. He put up respectable numbers last year as Mike Davis’ backup, he has the physical talent and was a sought-after recruit coming out of high school. But he didn’t exactly light up the sky in the spring, and some observers question whether he has enough of a top-end gear to hold the job. He has also been injury-prone while in Columbia. His backup, David Williams, could actually take the job away with a strong fall camp. Williams isn’t quite as big as Wilds, but he has shown better durability and quickness. Shon Carson and signees A.J. Turner and Mon Denson will likely fill in behind the top two. South Carolina will use a fullback this year, likely either holdover Garrison Gist or Georgia Southern transfer Rivers Bedenbaugh. Neither figures to give South Carolina much flexibility outside of their traditional role.
To get it out of the way, Pharoh Cooper is one of the best receivers in the SEC right now, and could make a case for being the No. 1 receiver in the conference. He is built like a running back, can operate the Wildcat package at quarterback, has good speed and elusiveness and great hands. But he is literally the only thing South Carolina has. Freshman Deebo Samuel came out of spring camp the starter at split end, but he’ll be pushed by another freshman, Shaq Davidson, and journeyman senior Carlton Heard. Redshirt freshman Terry Googer, who has excellent size, and Shamier Jeffery will probably be the next in line. The only thing left is a walk-on who came out of spring in the playing rotation, Sean Odom, and several true freshmen. The headliner of those is slot receiver Jalen Christian, who lacks size but has explosiveness in spades. Big-bodied Christian Owens could also find a role. The tight end spot will have a new starter, likely to be senior Jerell Adams. Kevin Crosby and H-back Clayton Stadnik will provide depth. Oddly enough, South Carolina has no scholarshipped tight ends heavier than 240 pounds, meaning South Carolina would need to either enlist walk-on Jacob August as a specialist blocker, or simply go a different direction with offensive philosophy in short-yardage situations.
The right side of the line will be solid, as Brandon Shell and the underrated Will Sport are set to start at right tackle and guard, respectively. Alan Knott returns as the starting center. The new left guard figures to be Mike Matulis, who is a senior with plenty of prior experience on the job. The only area of concern is left tackle, where Mason Zandi led the battle coming out of spring. If Zandi can’t handle the position once the games go live, Matulis will have to move over from left guard. In such a scenario, Donell Stanley or Cody Waldrop would likely fight for the open position. D.J. Park adds depth at tackle. It’s clear South Carolina intends to load up the strongside in the running game, but the uncertainty at left tackle could have a trickle-down effect on the quarterback job.
Jon Hoke was brought in to help fix the defense, and last year’s coordinator, Lorenzo Ward, was demoted to co-coordinator as a result. South Carolina did nothing well on defense in 2015, ranking 105th in rushing defense, 89th in scoring defense and 92nd in total defense. The Gamecocks were slightly better against the pass, ranking 52nd, but it was a mirage: Most teams had no reason to need to risk going through the air to beat them. South Carolina will move from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 base set, get more conventional, and focus on the fundamentals.
No unit on the team underachieved in 2014 as much as this group did. Worse yet, the Gamecocks aren’t sure this version will do much better. The two Gerald Dixons, DE Gerald Dixon and DT Gerald Dixon Jr. will start again. What happens around them isn’t yet known. Talented true freshman Dexter Wideman may very well lock up the tackle slot next to Dixon Jr.; if not, look for Taylor Stallworth or Phillip Dukes to get the call. Kelsey Griffin and Ulric Jones will add depth inside. At end, Marquavius Lewis and Darius English, both juniors, are vying for the strongside end job. Lewis has more bulk and is better against the run, while English is a pure pass rusher. David Johnson, and undersized converted linebacker, will back up Dixon on the weakside. Boosie Whitlow, a signee, could be an option either inside or out. Tackle Abu Lamin, who transferred in from junior college but suffered injuries in a car wreck mid-season, lit up spring practices and could compete for a starting job. There are some good options here, but there were good options in 2014 as well and the Gamecocks couldn’t make it work.
Middle linebacker Skai Moore is a quality payer, but he needs help from his supporting cast. Bryson Allen-Williams, who moves to linebacker from defensive end in Hoke’s 4-3 set, is being asked to step up at weakside linebacker, and he’ll likely be the difference between this group making a difference or just taking up space. Unheralded Jonathan Walton will get the call on the strongside after moving over from weakside in 2014. Depth is thin, with only T.J. Holloman having the combination of size, speed and experience needed to be considered a prime competitor. Larenz Bryant has potential, but Jalen Henry, the backup strongside linebacker, is smaller than some teams’ cornerbacks. He’s also a true freshman and will probably only play special teams until he’s ready. Freshmen Daniel Fennell and Ernest Hawkins don’t come in with a lot of hoopla, but given the performance of the 2014 unit, they have as good a chance as any to play. Moore has a chance to be special but not if he doesn’t get some help.
Despite doing a decent job in pass defense in 2015, South Carolina is shuffling the lineup, likely at the behest of Hoke. Chris Lammons is a key to the defense and will return to his starting cornerback post after coming on late in his freshman year. Who line up to him is anyone’s guess. Rico McWilliams and T.J. Gurley, the latter a starter in 2014, were locked in close competition at the other cornerback position this spring. Gurley is also in the mix at free safety along with Isaiah Johnson and Chris Moody, last year’s starter there. The strong safety position will likely be the property of either Jordan Diggs or Chaz Elder, although Jasper Sasser is also in the mix there. The backup cornerback positions are thin at the moment, with Al Harris Jr. the best of the bunch. Jamari Smith and Darin Smalls could make a move. Leashes will be short.
Elliott Fry originally walked on at South Carolina and has become a reliable weapon for Spurrier. He’ll handle all the kicking duties again in 2015. Florida Atlantic transfer Sean Kelly is expected to win the punter’s job, although Michael Almond and Joseph Charlton will try to have something to say about it. As for the return game, two words: Pharoh Cooper. Shon Carson will have a key role on kickoff returns as well, but Cooper’s presence elevates this group immensely.