Will Muschamp is set to begin his fourth season in Columbia in 2019 following a somewhat disappointing 7-6 season that ended with a forgettable experience at the Belk Bowl against Virginia. That’s a far cry from the previous spring coming off a 9-win season including an Outback Bowl victory.
While he figures out how to insert key recruits, and develop depth across the roster, Muschamp must also redirect the conversation about his program as he tries to re-establish South Carolina as a contender in the SEC East.
With spring practice underway, the Gamecocks are looking to build up to the Garnet & Black Spring Game on April 6.
Here are 10 things I want to see this spring:
1. A renewed swagger
It’s tough to come out of bowl season following a shutout loss at the hands of an average ACC team that had a .500 record in conference play. But that’s where the Gamecocks found themselves entering the offseason. Trying to shake off a fourth-place SEC East finish with an experienced, but flawed, quarterback is a daunting task for Muschamp.
The coach must convince his players that they can at least beat out the likes of East rivals not named Georgia. However, a win over the Bulldogs would obviously be a season-defining event, but the building blocks for that kind of event begin with messaging in the spring.
2. A clear No. 2 quarterback
Ryan Hilinski was not only one of the most highly-touted recruits of the most recent class, he’s one of the most notable Gamecock signees in several years, especially from a national perspective. But there’s also Dakereon Joyner, who spent his 2018 freshman season learning the playbook and developing his passing ability. He even received extended practice time leading up to the Belk Bowl. Coach Will Muschamp explained his stance on Hilinski’s playing time in his preview of spring practice: “I want the best quarterback that we can (have) at the University of South Carolina, and we’ll see how that presents itself as we move forward.”
Still, Muschamp wouldn’t put a “timetable” on selecting the No. 2.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got 15 practices, and then we’ve got a select number of practices going into fall camp before we really need to make that decision. That’s not something as far as a time concern is concerned,” Muschamp said. “They’re all young players. They’re all continuing to improve. We’ve been pleased with their progress, but now we’re going to play football.”
While Hilinski and Joyner receive the bulk of the attention, don’t forget Jay Urich is also in the mix.
3. Some semblance of a rebuilt secondary
Some of the most well-known names, be it highlights or frustration, in recent years for the Garnet and Black are in the secondary. Chris Lammons, Rashad Fenton, D.J. Smith, Steven Montac and Keisean Nixon. But they’re all gone, and oft-injured starter, Jamyest Williams, is out this spring because of another shoulder surgery.
Now the new regulars are Jaycee Horn, Israel Mukuamu and R.J. Roderick, who each received varying levels of playing time in 2018. The fresh faces are recent signees Cam Smith, Shilo Sanders, Jammie Robinson and Johnny Dixon. The trouble is those newcomers aren’t enrolled yet, and one-time running back A.J. Turner is expected to return to the offensive backfield after a brief stint in the secondary this spring. Southern Cal transfer Jamel Cook seemingly has plenty of potential to make a splash with production and the availability of playing time. Which one of these names will stand out by the fall?
4. Clarity on the new coaching staff’s roles
The coaching staff shakeup brought Thomas Brown and John Scott Jr. to campus to coach running backs and the defensive line. But it also shifted Bobby Bentley from running backs to tight ends.
The key for Brown is to upgrade his position group. The Gamecocks have not had a 1,000-yard rusher for 5 seasons. Mike Davis was the last one in 2013 with 1,183 yards. The same goes for Scott. The Gamecocks haven’t had a feared pass rusher across the SEC in 6 years since the days of Kelcy Quarles and Jadeveon Clowney. The Gamecocks haven’t been in the top eight of the SEC in sacks since 2013.
5. A bona fide established running back
The Gamecocks’ top rusher the past two seasons didn’t even top 700 yards rushing, or 5 rushing touchdowns. In 2016, Rico Dowdle led the team with 764 yards and 6 touchdowns. In that time, the team has alternated a host of feature backs, even within the season. Depth hasn’t even been an excuse as there has been a surprise contributor almost every season since Davis’ big season 6 years ago. (Remember Mon Denson last year?) But it’s also something Muschamp is aware of and plans to address.
“More than anything, just consistency at the position, being able to run through contact, and create some explosive runs,” he said of the running back position. “In our league, you’re not going to be able to block everybody. There are going to be a free hat in the box at some point, and you’ve got to be able to make a guy miss. That’s something we need to do better consistently.”
6. Bentley cuts down on turnovers
Given the state of the secondary, it would be alarming if Jake Bentley has trouble against these defensive backs. But if there’s one blemish to the Bentley resume in Columbia, it’s interceptions. He led the SEC with 14 last season, 4 more than Ty Storey of Arkansas.
“The No. 1 thing is we’ve got to take better care of the ball. We had 14 interceptions – they’re not all on Jake,” Muschamp said. “We had a tipped ball off a face mask for a touchdown against Georgia; they’re not all on him. We had 6 interceptions in the red zone. Again, they’re not all on him, but that’s far too many turnovers from that position. He understands that, and that’s the No. 1 area where we’ve got to make improvements as a football team.”
7. Cross-training the offensive line
One sigh of relief for the coaching staff is that left tackle Sadarius Hutcherson is set at his position. The Gamecocks are also comfortable with any combination of Donell Stanley, Chandler Farrell, Hank Manos, Eric Douglas, Jordan Rhodes and Dylan Wonnum to fill out the rest of the line. Offensive line coach Eric Wolford’s task is to develop depth, and backup options when injuries arrive. But make no mistake, when Muschamp describes the OL as having “position flexibility” it’s something he can build from.
8. How quickly will Zacch Pickens transition?
The crown jewel of the most recent signing class, Pickens will have the most eyes on him not only this spring, but throughout the summer and into the fall. He’s already drawn accolades early in spring workouts.
New #Gamecocks DT Coach John Scott on Zacch Pickens: “You can't teach that body, he does things naturally with his body that other guys aren't able to do.”
— SC Sports (@SCSportsShow) March 7, 2019
Pickens is a biscuit shy of 300 pounds, and is expected to switch between tackle and end positions this spring. As Pickens grows into becoming the focal point of an opponent’s offensive game plan, it’ll be interesting to see which position he’s more effective. Pickens will play a key role in how the Gamecocks look to improve their rush defense, which was second-to-last in the SEC last season.
9. Who will fill Deebo Samuel’s special teams impact?
Because of Deebo Samuel’s injury history, the names for special teams returners won’t be new. But the interesting element will be who emerges as a star. Among them, A.J. Turner, Shi Smith, Bryan Edwards, Josh Vann, and when he ultimately returns from injury time off, Jamyest Williams. Special teams is one way South Carolina could make hay in conference games, especially in an underdog role.
10. Can special teams in general become a strength?
Muschamp already noted that South Carolina hasn’t blocked a punt in 3 years, so look for the team to spend time on it this spring. However, the Gamecocks have a veteran kicker and punter in Parker White and Joe Charlton, two positions that SEC East teams have shined with in recent years. If they’re able to ascend in the SEC East, this is one of the areas that the program will need to show a splash.