Better or worse? Previewing South Carolina's offense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC team’s offense continues with South Carolina. Coming Saturday: Tennessee.
With the majority of players returning to the Gamecocks’ offense, 2021 will be a litmus test about how a cultural shift and change in coaching staff and vision can translate to production and success.
South Carolina must replace its No. 1 wide receiver from 2020, but by and large, the Gamecocks return at least one key player, if not a majority of production, from every other position on offense. Coaching them up is the biggest task.
Put simply, the Gamecocks need the running game to be the backbone, and there are at least 3 options to contribute, not to mention the offensive line, which has at least 4 veteran starters returning.
Since the Spurrier glory days, the Gamecocks have averaged a 5th-place finish in the SEC East, and despite Shane Beamer’s glowing optimism, not many people are buying — or picking — them above that order. ESPN’s FPI, for example, projects the Gamecocks to have a 4.5-7.5 record, with a 22% chance of winning 6 games in 2021.
The nonconference games are one thing, and a welcome sight from 2020, but there’s little confidence that the Gamecocks can have a winning record against so-called swing games in the division outside of the heavyweights of Georgia and Florida. It’s a difficult argument to make about the Gamecocks winning 2 out of 3 against the likes of Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.
What role will the offense play in shaping that final record? Let’s take a look.
Key losses: WR Shi Smith, OL Sadarius Hutcherson, QB Colin Hill.
Key returnees: QB Luke Doty, RT Dylan Wonnum, RB Kevin Harris, C Eric Douglas, TE Nick Muse
Potential breakout players: WR E.J. Jenkins, WR Jalen Brooks, WR Ahmarean Brown, RB MarShawn Lloyd
The personnel debate is a case of quality versus quantity. There may not be a bigger piece to replace on a pound for pound basis across the SEC than Shi Smith. But across the board, South Carolina is better, both from an experience standpoint and with an upgrade and depth of talent at places like running back with MarShawn Lloyd’s return from an ACL injury.
Passing offense: Better
The Gamecocks threw 8 TD passes last season against 9 interceptions. They were the only SEC team with a negative ratio and only Kentucky threw fewer TD passes.
So this is a relatively low bar because if the Gamecocks get solid production from 2 players, it will be an improvement from 2020. Besides Smith, and Muse largely at the end of the season, none of the other receiving targets put together a memorable game or stretch in 2020. What’s more, for whatever success Doty had last season, he still lacked a downfield threat, both from a target standpoint and his arm potential. He averaged just 5.7 yards per attempt.
If Muse isn’t the answer at tight end, there are capable options in E.J. Jenkins, an FCS transfer who flashed in the spring game, or Jaheim Bell. The tight end position has a track record to sell in Hayden Hurst, who has had a big senior year, and has gone on to have a productive NFL career. One of these guys needs to trend in that direction.
Moving to wide receiver, the question marks abound. OrTre Smith, Brooks and Josh Vann have all shown great potential but struggled because of injuries or a lack of production, or both. For Doty to take the next step, 2 of those receivers need to make a big splash.
Running game: Better
There will be legitimate talk about the Gamecocks having one of the best running back tandems in the country. Kevin Harris became a breakout star last season as he lead the SEC in rushing yards per game (113.8) and MarShawn Lloyd was expected to the star until he suffered a preseason injury. Then, this spring, ZaQuandre White was the star of the Garnet and Black game, which followed a theme throughout all 15 practices. Harris and Lloyd are each at least 200 pounds and also both under 6 feet, so if they get rolling, those battering rams will make for some long days for defenses.
Add in an experienced offensive line, which was a key last season, and there’s plenty to get excited about from a running game standpoint. What a luxury it is for the new coaching staff to have tackle Dylan Wonnum, guard Jovaughn Gwyn and center Eric Douglas all coming off a season in which they started 10 games in 2020. Greg Adkins as a position coach there with some 3 decades of experience is a notable hire for Beamer.
It’s been 7 years since the Gamecocks had a pair of running backs reach at least 500 yards in a season (Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds). Look for nonconference games to pad that stat even after Harris defied odds last season with a breakout year in the face of exclusive SEC competition.
Lloyd is a wildcard here, but he’s certainly capable of having a breakout season, especially with defenses keying on Harris and Doty’s passing being unproven.
Kicking game: Even
As long as Parker White stays within his range, the Gamecocks have one of the more reliable kickers. Will Muschamp drew criticism for asking him to attempt field goals a few yards outside of that range. But regardless, he is a 4-year returning starter, the first in school history in his 6th season. White is trying to become the school’s all-time leading scorer; he needs 70 more to surpass Elliott Fry’s record of 359 points.
As for the returners, it’s still a grab bag of options, such as at kick return with receivers Jalen Brooks, Dakereon Joyner and Josh Vann and running back ZaQuandre White. Punt return is a group of Ahmarean Brown, Rico Powers and Vann. Given Beamer’s history as a special teams coach, this group should have plenty of reason to improve, and potential to steal a game.
There is plenty of reason to believe the offense will be better than last season, when it averaged just 23.5 points per game. The Gamecocks finished 10th in the SEC in total offense, including 6th in rushing offense and 13th in passing offense. Even if Harris doesn’t lead the SEC in rushing, he has competent colleagues to shoulder the load, and the offensive line has depth and experience.
Doty’s decision-making is expected to be better, both with reducing turnovers and deciding when to run. It’s difficult to see a more experienced and reliable kicker in the SEC than White. The main issue is at wide receiver, which is obviously connected with Doty, and it is a legitimate concern though there is another belief that it won’t be such a glaring hole as 2020.
Overall, the Gamecocks have the pieces for an offense that is at least middle of the pack in the SEC. The best-case scenario is if the receivers develop and Doty takes the next step, then South Carolina can pick off a division or in-state rival.