There is optimism in Columbia coming off a season in which the South Carolina Gamecocks overachieved in several areas, most notably at quarterback and running back with a couple of freshmen. Given the second-half momentum, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that they finished 6-7 in 2016.

With Jake Bentley, Rico Dowdle, Deebo Samuel and Hayden Hurst, the offense should measure up with most teams around. With largely the same players around the offense, the Gamecocks scored 30-plus three times in six games with Bentley at the helm; they hadn’t scored more than 20 in the first six. Even with that kind of firepower, South Carolina is largely still expected to be a dark horse to win the SEC East behind Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.


Jake Bentley

Confidence meter: High

Why? Few freshmen quarterbacks in program history had Bentley’s kind of debut. Because of that, the Gamecocks also have an established starter for the first time in several years. Bentley took over a 2-4 team in late October and led it to four wins in five weeks and bowl eligibility. Through his first five starts, Bentley completed 66 percent of his pass attempts for nearly 1,000 yards and six touchdowns.

Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports


Rico Dowdle, Ty’Son Williams

Confidence meter: High

Why: Dowdle is poised to become the Gamecocks’ first 1,000-yard rusher in four seasons. Dowdle started the final five games of the regular season after he missed the first four. Williams (6 feet, 220 pounds) was South Carolina’s scout team running back last season and will be a change of pace to Dowdle’s power.


Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards, OrTre Smith, Hayden Hurst (TE)

Confidence meter: High

Samuel sets career highs for catches (14) and receiving yards (190) against USF in the Birmingham Bowl.

Why: For the first time in three years, the Gamecocks have an experienced group of pass catchers, especially if tight end Hurst is included. Hurst, a former minor league baseball player, became the first sophomore in school history to be named a permanent team captain. While Samuel has a long injury history of largely hamstring problems, his 6-foot, 200-pound frame is capable of big plays all over the field. Add in Edwards, Smith and Terry Googer, and they have taller options that easily create mismatches. The unit also has one of the biggest surprises of the preseason in 5-10 Shi Smith.


Malik Young, Donell Stanley, Alan Knott, Cory Helms, Zack Bailey

Confidence meter: Medium

Why? Knott and Helms have started extensively but are recovering from shoulder surgery and a broken ankle, respectively. Their experience along with Stanley helps bolster the interior of the line. Overall, there are four starters back and Young already won the job at left tackle to replace Mason Zandi. Line coach Eric Wolford is back for his second stint as South Carolina’s offensive line coach (he last held that spot in 2009) and is charged with turning the veteran unit into an effective one after the team was 13th in the SEC in rushing last season.


Dante Sawyer, Taylor Stallworth, Ulric Jones, D.J. Wonnum

Confidence meter: Low

Why? This is an area of concern for the team because it finished 11th in the SEC in sacks last season, and there are some questions about how they will deploy the “buck” position, which is the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. They also gave up more than 200 rushing yards per game. It’s the last chance for several players, and coach Will Muschamp pointed out their value at SEC Media Days. Stallworth, Sawyer and Jones each arrived on campus with high expectations, but the seniors haven’t lived up to the hype.


Bryson Allen-Williams, T.J. Brunson and Skai Moore

According to the school, Moore could become the 15th player in Division I history to lead his team in tackles four times.

Confidence meter: High with an asterisk

Why? The starting three are among the best around as a unit, but depth is a serious concern, and because of that, look for the Gamecocks to be creative with their alignments. That means, in some cases, two linebackers, five defensive backs, and Allen-Williams at the “buck” position to gain more of a pass rush. Moore’s history is well-documented as a team leader in tackles for multiple seasons, but he’s also a year removed from neck surgery. Newcomer Sherrod Greene has drawn some praise in the preseason as a youngster who could see some playing time.

Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports


JaMarcus King, Rashad Fenton, Chris Lammons, D.J. Smith

Confidence meter: Medium

Why? The depth took a blow in the preseason with the season-ending injury to freshman Jaylin Dickerson. But there’s plenty of experience, especially with King, Lammons and Fenton, though they dealt with plenty of injuries and targeting calls last season.

Special teams

Alexander Woznick, Joseph Charlton, Chris Lammons, Deebo Samuel

Confidence meter: Low

Why? The Gamecocks have a bunch of new faces here, especially with kicker Woznick and punter Charlton. South Carolina’s all-time leading scorer, Elliot Fry, and punter Sean Kelly departed. Enter Woznick and Charlton to a unit that also had some uneven play in the return game. One positive is that Woznick made field goals of 47, 48 and 50 yards in the spring game. Lammons is in line to return punts along with Rashad Fenton. But two true freshmen, Jamyest Williams and Shi Smith, could get chances.