Better or worse? Previewing South Carolina's offense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series previewing every SEC team’s offense, starting with the East Division. Coming Saturday: Tennessee.
Replacing the fireworks and contributions of Deebo Samuel will be difficult, but South Carolina has more than a few veteran returnees for the offense this season.
Jake Bentley, of course, is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC, and he has several veteran targets back, including Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith.
South Carolina ranked No. 9 in the SEC in scoring in 2018, averaging 30.1 points per game, but struggled to find consistency. The Gamecocks looked strong against the likes of Missouri, Ole Miss and even Clemson, in a loss. But they stumbled against Georgia, Kentucky, and especially in the bowl game loss to Virginia. Bentley’s 14 interceptions were well-documented, and 6 of those came inside the 20-yard line.
Passing offense: Better
Between Bentley’s experience, and the budding talent of Dakereon Joyner and Ryan Hilinski, there are plenty of options. Throw in the versatility of Jay Urich, and there is reason for optimism, even trying to absorb the loss of Samuel.
Muschamp and his staff have yet to face this kind of situation at South Carolina. In many ways, Bentley puts Muschamp at ease with his leadership, experience, knowledge of the playbook and ability to make key throws. However, how he deals with the flurry of interceptions will likely be his legacy in Columbia.
For his part, Edwards is closing in on several career program records, from receptions, to yards and touchdowns, held by Gamecock greats Kenny McKinley, Alshon Jeffery and Sidney Rice. Edwards has been a model of consistency, as he’s had 44 catches, 64 and 55 each season throughout his career. Drops have been an issue, one shared by the entire unit.
Edwards announced in early January he planned to skip the draft and return to campus this fall. He’ll look to build on a consistent career that’s seen him make 37 starts in 38 contests. Edwards is already sixth on the career list in school history with 2,229 yards, which is 813 from the record. He also needs seven receiving touchdowns (23) to set the all-time mark, and 44 catches (207)
Edwards will lead a group alongside Shi Smith, who has 74 career catches. Rounding out the depth chart are Chavis Dawkins and Randrecous Davis, who each are looking to prove themselves by way of production, or avoiding injuries. There’s also newcomers Keveon Mullins, Xavier Legette and Tyquan Johnson.
Also don’t forget the star of the spring game, Urich. Urich showed off his versatility when he completed 6-of-8 passes for 84 yards, and was also the game’s top receiver as he caught 9 passes for 130 yards. That’s a far cry from his contributions during the 2018 season, was 1 pass for 9 yards against Chattanooga. He also had 1 carry for 14 yards.
Rushing offense: Better
Only Arkansas and Tennessee had fewer rushing yards per game last season in the SEC than the 12th-place Gamecocks, who averaged 152 yards per game.
Reaching 100 yards on the ground typically spelled success for South Carolina in 2018, as 4 of its 6 losses came when the rushing total was fewer than 100 yards. Rico Dowdle returns as the feature back again after he led the team with 654 yards. But South Carolina hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Mike Davis in 2013. In fact, South Carolina has had 4 leading rushers in the past 5 seasons, and hasn’t had the same leading rusher in consecutive seasons since Davis in 2013-14.
After the departure of Ty’Son Williams, the depth chart is Dowdle, Deshaun Fenwick, A.J. Turner, Lavonte Valentine, Mon Denson and Kevin Harris. They might also add Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster, who has an offer from the Gamecocks. Those names and current recruits are a main target for new running backs coach Thomas Brown to upgrade the position which has seen only Davis and Marcus Lattimore drafted out of South Carolina in 12 years.
Harris is a bruising freshman and he showed the ability to be a finisher in the spring game. The former 3-star prospect coming out of Hinesville, Ga., and the No. 68 player in his home state in the 2019 class was the best back in the spring game. The only running back for the Gamecocks in the most recent recruiting class, Harris scored a short-yardage touchdown, and built on the burst he showed at a Will Muschamp camp when he ran a 4.55 40-yard dash. Along with Denson’s wide body, Harris’ 5-10, 230-pound frame could prove to be a load for opposing defenses.
The top three in a historically running-back-by committee approach are expected to be Dowdle, Denson and Turner. An improvement in this area could go a long ways toward taking pressure off of Bentley.
Special teams: Better
Former 2-year walk-on Parker White received a surprise scholarship during the spring game.
Muschamp, a former walk-on-turned-scholarship-recipient at Georgia, knows the feeling, but also White’s value for the program after he’s made game-winning kicks against Louisiana Tech, Tennessee and Missouri, the latter two last season. White is is 27-for-41 on field goals for his career but 21-for-23 from 40 yards or closer. Punter Joseph Charlton was a top 5 player at his position in the SEC a year ago, and should only improve from there.
Edwards was the leading punt returner a year ago, but kickoff return is another area where the team must find a replacement for Samuel. Shi Smith and A.J. Turner are possible replacements, along with other defensive backs.
The returners on special teams might have the largest shoes to fill, or the most production to make up. Edwards, after all, just averaged 7.9 yards per return, and the Gamecocks haven’t had a punt return for a touchdown since Ace Sanders in 2012. Meanwhile, Samuel averaged nearly 25 yards per kickoff return last season.
If you look at the bowl performance, and disappointing efforts against Georgia, Kentucky and Florida, it’s easy to see how the Gamecocks could improve. There’s already been plenty written and said about the tough schedule, which includes Clemson, Alabama and Georgia. But, as Muschamp has said, the schedule is fairly difficult most years. The key for the program is to get the upper hand with most of the East teams, at least outside of Georgia. However, fans will get restless if there are prolonged losing streaks against Georgia and Clemson.
The Gamecocks return 16 starters, including an experienced quarterback and more depth than the program has had in several years. The difficult part will be finding 9 wins on a schedule where almost every other team has improved, and 3 were in the mix for the College Football Playoff.