Better or worse? Previewing South Carolina's offense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 5th in a series previewing every SEC East team’s offense. Next: Tennessee.
It was quite a tumultuous offseason for South Carolina, as the program returns just 3 assistant coaches in their same role as last season. And the Gamecocks landed another blue-chip defensive lineman in 5-star Jordan Burch, whose recruitment was a rollercoaster to the very end.
Coach Will Muschamp is entering his 5th season in Columbia, and it has been a series of ups and downs. In the 2019 season alone, there was the upset win at Georgia and a public relations controversy caused by the incoming school president that centered on Muschamp’s future and potential contract buyout.
Veteran coach and SEC coordinator Mike Bobo is at the helm of the offense as he tries to maximize the potential of sophomore QB Ryan Hilinski. That new playbook will hope to get production from star recruit MarShawn Lloyd, as he begins a quest to become a truly dependable feature back, something the Gamecocks have lacked for too many years.
South Carolina averaged just 22.4 points per game last season. That was 12th in the SEC and the fewest since Muschamp’s debut season in 2016.
Will 2020 be better? Let’s take a look.
Key losses: WR Bryan Edwards, RBs Tavien Feaster, Rico Dowdle, Mon Denson, A.J. Turner, OL Donell Stanley, QB Jake Bentley, TE Kyle Markway.
Key returnees: WR Shi Smith, Xavier Legette, Josh Vann, WR/QB Dakereon Joyner, OL Sadarius Hutcherson, Dylan Wonnum, RBs Kevin Harris, Deshaun Fenwick, TE Nick Muse.
Passing offense: Better
Shi Smith is plenty experienced, but he still has a ways to go to replace the production and dependability that Edwards offered as one of the best receivers in a decorated program history book. Smith has appeared in 34 games and started most of them (26) with 117 catches for 1,571 yards and 9 touchdowns. Legette, who had to learn the receiver position after he played QB in high school, and Vann are breakout candidates because they’ve been on the scene long enough to be acclimated in order to show true production. Vann began the 2019 season as a starter but missed 3 games and finished 4th on the team in receiving. He had 18 catches as a freshman and 19 receptions as a sophomore.
The rest of the bunch is a series of wild cards, most notably OrTre Smith and Randrecous Davis have battled prolonged injuries. It’ll be equally interesting to see how the Gamecocks deploy Joyner, whom they moved from quarterback to receiver to get him on the field.
The group also has a new position coach in Joe Cox.
South Carolina has been known to see a freshman contribute early, so keep your eye on the group that includes Mike Wyman, Rico Powers, Ger-Cari Caldwell and Jaheim Bell.
The good news is most of the group is familiar with Hilinski, who has healed since MCL damage in a knee, and elbow soreness most notably present in the Missouri loss. Hilinski reportedly has changed his throwing motion to fix the elbow problems.
There’s no doubt that Hilinski needs to become a top 5 QB in the SEC, and because of that, the program’s success is largely tied to his development. But remember last season featured another turnstile year at running back, Bryan Edwards was injured down the stretch, and he was a true freshman. It’s unlikely that those types of variables will repeat in 2020. It wasn’t perfect, but if he could duplicate much of what he did against Alabama, especially against the division rivals, the program could go a long way.
Running game: Worse
This position had a significant dropoff in terms of experience. Insert incoming freshman MarShawn Lloyd, an important recruit for South Carolina, to go with Harris and Fenwick. Both Harris and Fenwick, who offer contrasting styles, have shown flashes but are still looking for the consistency to be counted on. If Lloyd’s production is anything like his recruitment, Gamecocks fans can sit back and watch the rushing yards pile up, slow and steady. A lot rests on his shoulders though, as he’s expected to be an integral member of the backfield, if not the starter by season’s end.
This is the most vulnerable position on the offense because of the depth dropoff from last season. However, the offensive line is relatively solid, with bookend tackles of super veteran Sadarius Hutcherson and rising star Dylan Wonnum, there’s also Hank Manos, Jakai Moore and Jovaughn Gwyn who have some experience.
Kicking game: Better
A former walk-on, Parker White has developed into a pretty reliable kicker. Overall, he’s hit on 91.4 percent of his field goals inside 40 yards, and last year was 18-for-22 overall on attempts. He made all 25 PATs.
For the returners, this is a mirror situation to the wide receiver discussion. Many of these names, like Smith, Legette and Vann, for example, will be thrust into more prominent roles, or have expectations rise because they’ve performed these duties for some time. Smith led the SEC in kickoff return yardage per game a year ago, and the Gamecocks could benefit from the hidden yardage that the program saw from special teams guru Ace Sanders 7 or 8 years ago with multiple touchdowns.
Muschamp’s buyout was the talk of the 2019 season, especially the second half of the year. There is already a discussion amongst fans that the coronavirus pandemic will put an added strain on South Carolina athletics finances, and therefore make it more difficult to pay his would-be buyout of $13 million at the end of this calendar year.
The remaking of the coaching staff, either by necessity or default after voluntary departures, puts extra onus on Muschamp to deliver. He has recruited pretty well in-state and nationally to secure 5-star defensive linemen, a necessity in the SEC, and a blue-chip QB recruit. The schedule doesn’t change much, especially for the most important games, such as Clemson, Georgia and LSU instead of Alabama this season. Still, in 8 seasons as a head coach, Muschamp is 32-32 in the SEC. Too often, there’s an inexplicable loss after an upset win like last year at Georgia.
That’s why I believe the learning experience from 2019, coupled with the new blood on the coaching staff will equate to more wins, especially in the SEC East. It’s not much of a stretch to see the Gamecocks start 4-0 with wins over Coastal Carolina, East Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky. With momentum going to Florida, and the motivation from last year’s flag-marred blown lead and controversial loss against the Gators, there should be plenty of juice for the Garnet and Black.
The bottom line is Muschamp needs at least 1 win against the trio of Clemson, Georgia and LSU, and can’t afford blowout losses that marred much of 2019, from Texas A&M to Missouri and Clemson.