Another year, another OC: What to expect from Mike Bobo's offense at South Carolina
All offseason, things appeared to be headed in the positive direction for the South Carolina offense.
New coordinator Mike Bobo, no stranger to the SEC, arrived from Colorado State, and immediately set QB Ryan Hilinski on a path to fix mistakes from last year — like footwork — and bounce back from injuries. Bobo brought with him a key, albeit under-the-radar, transfer in Adam Prentice, a fullback/H-back type who was a team captain and academic All-Mountain West player to smooth over the rough spots of the playbook transition.
Bobo’s offense is far more tradition than the modern-day spreads that are, well, spreading across college football. At Georgia, his offenses were almost exclusively I-formation. They varied a bit more at Colorado State, but you can expect to see quarterback Ryan Hilinski under center much more than he is in the shotgun, and the Gamecocks will feature a fullback, too.
A key component of that run-first mentality was going to be 5-star recruit MarShawn Lloyd, a highly-rated 4-star running back out of Maryland.
But last week Lloyd suffered a season-ending injury that seemingly has thrown a wrench in the spokes of that positive progression. Can the Gamecocks return to the level they were at 2 years ago without a blue-chip recruit? In a press conference last week, Bobo echoed coach Will Muschamp’s message of next man up.
“There’s some talented guys on our team, and MarShawn was one of those guys, and there’s not a lot of them, guys that you think can be difference-makers, but we’ve got to find a way to put the difference-makers we have in a position to be successful,” Bobo said.
The remaining options are newcomer ZaQuandre White, the No. 1-ranked JUCO running back from this class, who is listed at 6-1 and 200 pounds, and holdovers Kevin Harris and Deshaun Fenwick, who have each showed flashes, but also battled injuries and inconsistency.
White is a former 4-star recruit who was the No. 7-ranked running back in the 2017 class. Alabama’s Najee Harris was the No. 1 running back in that class. White signed with Florida State, along with Cam Akers, the No. 2 RB in that class. White was ranked ahead of Kylin Hill (No. 14) and Travis Etienne (No. 15), Chuba Hubbard (No. 23) and Jonathan Taylor (No. 24). Hill, Etienne and Hubbard are college stars, and Taylor is in the NFL after an All-American career at Wisconsin.
White redshirted his freshman year at FSU, switched to linebacker and transferred after the 2018 season. He returned to running back in junior college and dominated last season.
As for Harris, in his final 4 games last season, he had 15 carries for 32 yards and a touchdown. He played in 6 games, so he’ll enter 2020 as a sophomore, not a redshirt freshman. Fenwick as a redshirt freshman had 22 carries for 111 yards, with most coming against Vanderbilt, where he had 18 carries for 102 yards.
“I’ve been pleased with the guys,” Bobo said, specifically mentioning Fenwick. “Just how he’s going about his business. He’s changed his body. He looks good to me and there’s competition in that room.”
Bobo added that along with Fenwick, Rashad Amos and White have each responded to the competition. Bobo said White showed “short-area quickness and long speed.”
“I love his attitude, I love his mentality,” Bobo said. “He’s brought some life to that running back room. We all know in this league we’ll need multiple running backs and we’ve got to get those guys ready to play and this year, more than ever, with what we’re dealing with, with the COVID, and guys could be down at any moment.”
At receiver, Bobo said the group needs to get better, but newcomer Rico Powers has impressed him early on, and is running at No. 1 at the x-receiver spot. Jalen Brooks has also caught Bobo’s eye, as Brooks has also drawn praise from teammate Jaycee Horn.
Like any coach trying to maximize the production from his players, Bobo suggested that competition isn’t simply within a position group. If one area is performing better, he could tweak the play-calling in that direction.
“If I feel like I’ve got better tight ends and fullbacks than I do receivers, and they’re more productive, then we may lean that route, might be 12 or 21 personnel heavy,” he said. “If I feel like the receivers are better, we could be some 10 personnel or 11 personnel. That’s part of building our identity as a football team and trying to figure out who we can depend on.”
Bobo is aware that South Carolina passed for just 5.7 yards per attempt last season. While it’s not solely on the receivers, Bobo admitted that, “we’ve got to have more production at the receiver position.”
That might start with veteran Shi Smith. He’s not a vocal leader but Bobo already has talked with about taking on a larger role in the offense.
At tight end, Bobo feels like the Gamecocks have athleticism behind Nick Muse but noted that high school offenses don’t have a tight end put his hand in the dirt much anymore.
Ultimately, Bobo emphasized that it’s up to him to find the personnel that fits the playbook and is comfortable with it. And he didn’t dismiss a hypothetical scenario where freshman quarterback Luke Doty is shifted out to tight end. Doty already is seeing time on special teams. So if the quarterback position is healthy and settled, don’t be surprised if there’s some creativity with Doty, even, for example, as a Wildcat.
“If we’ve got Luke Doty, who’s talented, let’s build a package for him to come in the game, get these guys on the field,” Bobo said. “That’s good for team morale, that helps with our health, so that’s something we’re going to strive to do offensively is play a lot of guys.”
One thing we know for sure is that the quarterback will be under center a lot more than in previous years, and the tight end will be more involved generally, but especially in the running game. It is obviously an outlier in the modern trend of spread offenses. Bobo has previously said play-action passing is better under center because you can attack both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Under center must be a welcome relief for Hilinski, who struggled with mobility last year. Muschamp even questioned his running ability because the sophomore said his high school once ran an old Minnesota Vikings’ offense where he was almost exclusively under center, which he felt was more fluid.
Bobo is the 6th offensive coordinator Muschamp has hired as a head coach. Much has been made of that number, but Muschamp also likes to point out that the offense was pretty good in 2018. It was 7th in the SEC in yards per game and 9th in scoring (30.1 points per game). Players like Smith, who had 4 touchdowns as a sophomore that season, are still around.
Even with Lloyd’s injury, Bobo has plenty of tools to pull the offense off the mat. Now it’s up to him to be a quarterback whisperer for Hilinski, a motivator for Smith, and a developer in finding a new feature running back. It’s what he was hired to do.