South Carolina Gamecocks
Projected record: 8-4 (UGA, OM, UK, Clem); 5-3 and 2nd SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 7 (SE, FL, WR, LT, C, RG, QB)
Returning defensive starters: 5 (RDE, RDT, LDE, MLB, LCB)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)
QB: Vg DL: Av
RB: Fr LB: Fr
WR: Av DB: Av
OL: Av ST: Fr
Overview: In a transitional SEC East, the Gamecocks look like runner-up contenders simply because their fundamentals are better than those of most competitors. For a head coach who likes to win with defense, Will Muschamp’s team will have to take more chances this year and rely on a stacked offense and a solid QB while the defense is rebuilt.
Offensive breakdown: How good is Jake Bentley, really? From a numbers standpoint, he was good but hardly the second coming of Aaron Rodgers, which is what many were expecting. Bentley passed for 2,794 yards, but threw 12 interceptions against 18 touchdowns. He flashed escapability, but wasn’t really feared as a runner. If he can cut down on his turnovers, he can be a good second-tier SEC quarterback with the skills to occasionally take over a game. But he’s not there yet. Backup Michael Scarnecchia gives South Carolina one of the most experienced bench players in the conference.
In a quest to become a more power-centered, run-based offensive team, South Carolina has yet to identify a reliable back that can make a difference. Four players started games last year and all four return – A.J. Turner, Ty’Son Williams, Rico Dowdle and Mon Denson. None is a top-flight SEC back. Turner probably comes the closest, but he came out of the spring trailing the others. This is going to be a fight that lasts well into the season, most likely, and USC desperately needs someone to step forward and end it.
In a much better place is the receiver group, which may be underrated as a whole. Deebo Samuel returns after getting knocked out early in the 2017 season, and he joins emerging star Shi Smith, OrTre Smith and Bryan Edwards as players with significant starting experience. Chavis Dawkins and Randrecous Davis make depth not a factor for this team. One place where depth will be an issue, though, is tight end – specifically, quality depth. The loss of Hayden Hurst to the NFL created a void that seniors Jacob August and K.C. Crosby will attempt to fill. August is a former walk-on, while Crosby is smaller than several starting SEC tailbacks. The tight end group drags the entire receiver group’s ranking down a full tier.
The offensive line is expected to do big things, if the starters can stay healthy. Center Donell Stanley, right guard Zack Bailey and left tackle Dennis Daley return from the 2017 unit, and all three are on draft watchlists. Sadarius Hutcherson and Blake Camper are new starters, but both have some spot starts on their resumes. The issue to manage is depth, as the spring ended with freshmen backing up every position but one. An injury or two would be disastrous.
Defensive/ST breakdown: It is ironic that Will Muschamp’s specialty is the defensive backfield, yet that might end up being the weakness of the defense if South Carolina can’t develop new talent quickly. Worse yet, Tavyn Jackson and Javon Charleston, both of whom were expected to play key roles in the secondary, aren’t part of the equation. Jackson was medically disqualified, while Charleston was arrested and suspended in June on a case that allegedly involved him breaking into an occupied home. At the same time, the fact Charleston, a former walk-on, and Jackson, a red-chip recruit were set to play key roles for the Gamecocks says something about the talent level. Rashad Fenton returns to start at cornerback, and he offers some stability. The rest are unknowns. Keisean Nixon, a senior without much of a resume yet, exited spring as Fenton’s partner at corner. Steven Montac, another lightly-used senior, led one of the safety positions. Jamyest Williams and Jaylin Dickerson will likely fight for the job Charleston vacated, but Williams – USC’s top raw talent in the secondary – is coming off shoulder surgery and already needs snap management during his return to full-time action. Kenneth Coleman, a transfer from Presbyterian, was another name expected to be a part of the rotation, but doesn’t appear on early fall rosters. Look for true freshmen Jonathan Gipson and Jaycee Horn to play early. This has the potential to get ugly.
The front seven is in only slightly better shape, and the linebacker group’s effectiveness depends greatly on Bryson Allen-Williams’ ability to rebound from a shoulder injury. He’ll draw an outside starting spot, with T.J. Brunson in the middle. Brunson has experience, but isn’t considered a dynamic playmaker; Allen-Williams makes plays, but durability will be a concern. The weakside spot could be a real problem area, to the extent that Allen-Williams might move here and play out of position. Sherrod Greene and Eldridge Thompson competed for the job in the spring, but neither pulled ahead. Freshman Rosendo Louis turned some heads and he’ll play out of necessity.
Up front, there is no doubting the talent of Javon Kinlaw, who is fast developing into one of the SEC’s best tackles. If D.J. Wonnum backs up his impressive 2017 campaign with another similar effort, he’ll have a bright future at the next level. Look for Wonnum and Kinlaw to play beside one another to help deal with double-teams. The other side of the Gamecock line, though, needs work. Keir Thomas is somewhat out of position as a 4-3 end, while Kobe Smith, who is set to start next to Kinlaw inside, in unproven. The situation at reserve end isn’t dire but it’s far from optimal, with Smakeik Blackshear and Aaron Sterling the top contenders. True freshman tackle Rick Sandidge might have to play out of necessity.
The special teams were a mess in 2017 and the situation at kicker could extend into the year. Parker White, Alex Woznick and Shane Hynes all have D-1 experience as kickers – Hynes is transferring in from Kent State, while the other two split the USC job last year – but no one has separated himself yet. Joseph Charlton returns at punter, but needs to continue to improve. The return game was ineffectual but will get better so long as the health of Deebo Samuel doesn’t become an issue. If it does, the Gamecocks are back to square one.
Overall Trend: Up. This may sound odd to say given the depth concerns, but Will Muschamp seems to have turned a corner in his own professional development and the Gamecocks will get steadily better for it. South Carolina put up average numbers on defense last year and simply repeating that effort ought to lead to better things, as the offense is set to take the next step in its progression.
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