South Carolina coaching staff: Different, but better in 2016?
The first step to getting out of a hole is to stop digging, and South Carolina fans are hoping that the shovels are back in the shed after a turbulent 2015 season.
It was a year that began with Steve Spurrier criticizing “enemies” of the program in the summer, then resigning after a 2-4 start. Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott picked up the interim tag and led the team to its eventual 3-9 finish.
If it could go wrong along the way, it did. Perry Orth, the third-string quarterback when the season began, was the last man standing at the position in the second half of the season after injuries felled opening day starter Connor Mitch and Lorenzo Nunez.
Toss in an inability to stop the run or cover receivers and a lack of overall talent — thanks to a few down recruiting years of late — and a recipe for sweeping change was the result.
Enter Will Muschamp. The Auburn defensive coordinator last season, and former Florida coach before that, might not have been the first choice, but he was the final one.
If it’s possible to win the offseason in college football, Muschamp has done so. He made several solid staff hires, oversaw a good salvage effort of what could have been a disastrous recruiting class and injected a little life into what had become an unenthusiastic fan base.
So, things are definitely different in Columbia. But will they be better in 2016?
WHAT’S NEW — OFFENSE
Muschamp turned to the same man he tabbed to help him fix the Florida offense in his last year in Gainesville: Kurt Roper. Roper helped improve the Gators in 2014, but a 6-6 mark wasn’t enough for Muschamp to keep his job.
This time, the pair will start together.
Roper’s past systems have been spread oriented, with a tendency to favor mobile quarterbacks who can run a little read-option on occasion. His past two teams, Florida (2014) and Duke (2013), produced a combined 1,063 yards rushing and 32 touchdowns from its quarterbacks.
Early enrollee Brandon McIlwain left spring ball as the co-No. 1 with Orth at the quarterback spot, and the baseball player’s speed and athleticism likely make him a better fit for Roper’s scheme.
WHAT’S NEW — DEFENSE
Travaris Robinson will be the new defensive coordinator, replacing the Lorenzo Ward/Jon Hoke combo act that held the post last season.
It’s the first coordinator job for the noted recruiter, but he’s been coaching under Muschamp since 2011 and will be running the same sets Muschamp has favored.
That means multiple looks between a 4-3 and 3-4, featuring a “Buck” or hybrid defensive end/linebacker position. Unlike last season, which featured a safety playing as a nickel back, called a “Spur,” Robinson will play a corner at the nickel spot in an effort to get more speed on the field.
In addition, despite Muschamp and Robinson’s near-constant criticism of the secondary this spring, the Gamecocks will play more man and press coverage. The idea is to pressure the quarterback into quick throws, and playing tighter will allow defensive backs to be in position to break up more passes.
BETTER OR WORSE?
It almost has to be better, if for no other reason than things will be more stable.
There shouldn’t be any odd press conferences in the summer or mid-season coaching changes that lead to a coaching search that throws the program into upheaval.
On the field, Roper is a proven commodity as a college offensive coordinator. Generally speaking, his teams are able to run the ball, and his quarterbacks can throw it when they have to.
Robinson is more of a wild card, but as a Muschamp disciple — and with the noted defensive mind surely providing input — he should be able to adapt quickly to the coordinator role.
It’s a long climb from 3-9 to the top of the SEC East, and it likely won’t happen overnight. The 2016 season, however, should provide a step or two in that direction.