Without question 2020 is the most important season of Will Muschamp’s career. South Carolina has retooled the coaching staff and several key upperclassmen from recent years are gone, while highly-touted recruits have finished their freshman season and expectations will rise in 2020. We’re looking at you Ryan Hilinski and Zacch Pickens.

The Gamecocks lost 4 starters on offense and 5 on defense, with punter Joseph Charlton also gone from the 2019 roster.

With that kind of turnover, here are the 4 most critical position battles for South Carolina in 2020:

Running back

MarShawn Lloyd or Kevin Harris or Deshaun Fenwick

Lloyd was the highest-rated signee of the most recent recruiting class, and the best player in the group outside of Jordan Burch, if Burch signs in February. Lloyd is the kind of game-changing offensive recruit the Gamecocks haven’t landed in recent years, especially at running back. Lloyd is an early enrollee, so his participation in spring practice will close the competition gap.

Kevin Harris, meanwhile, is a 230-pound bowling ball bruiser who has shown flashes early in his career but also missed a significant amount of time because of injury. Harris did, however, return last season earlier than anticipated.

Fenwick is a bit of a wild card, as he’s largely been out of the mix, though briefly flashed late in 2019 with 102 rushing yards against Vanderbilt.

Ultimately, Lloyd should win this battle, though Harris will have an early edge. Look for Fenwick to be a change of pace back even though all of them are more than 210 pounds.

Lost in the lost/returning starters numbers are the Gamecocks lost 3 senior running backs, and while their production in recent years can be questioned, there’s something to be said about the drop off in experience that’s about to take place. Tavien Feaster, Rico Dowdle and Mon Denson as a group will be difficult to replace.

Wide receiver

Josh Vann or Xavier Legette or OrTre Smith

Shi Smith is pretty well established as the No. 1 receiver entering spring practice, but for a unit that has plenty of options, the Gamecocks need a couple to assert themselves. Vann began the 2019 season as a starter but missed 3 games and finished 4th on the team in receiving. He had 18 catches as a freshman and 19 receptions as a sophomore, so he’s due for an upswing.

Smith has battled a genetic condition with a prolonged knee injury that has hampered his career development, and he also missed 3 games in 2019. Look for Smith to return to the 30-catch form he showed in 2017. Legette is another option, like Fenwick, who showed some potential against Vanderbilt with a touchdown catch, and against Vandy and App State, combined for 8 catches for 76 yards. Legette and Vann should have a step-up in chances of securing that No. 2 slot behind Smith.

Tight end/fullback

Nick Muse or Adam Prentice or KeShawn Toney or Traevon Kenion

This is an interesting competition because of Muse’s recent ACL injury, and Prentice, the Colorado State transfer, having a leg-up on the Mike Bobo playbook. Add in that Muse will miss spring practice as he recovers from injury, and this should be a neck-and-neck race entering August. Muse didn’t score a touchdown in 2019, but he developed into a dependable short-yardage option even in only 8 games with 3 or 4 catches per game for 20 or 30 yards.

Toney and Kenion are blossoming options who preserved their redshirts in 2019 and could be nice growth stocks moving forward. But Prentice is the leader, because of his experience and familiarity with Bobo’s offense.

Buck/defensive end

Brad Johnson or Rodricus Fitten

This is an important position because of the departures of dependable D.J. Wonnum and Daniel Fennell. Johnson has battled injuries and missed time, so his potential is still unclear. He only made 1 tackle in 4 games in 2019, as he battled a prolonged groin problem. As a junior in 2019, Johnson was expected to be the top backup behind Wonnum. Johnson had 2.5 sacks in 2018 and can be called on to be a reliable, though not dominant, pass rusher.

Fitten added 10 to 15 pounds to bulk up to about 250 pounds in his first spring on campus a year ago. While he showed energy early on, which is what the coaching staff liked in recruiting, Fitten still has some development to do in learning the position and changing formations from pass rush to coverage.

Both players are classic cases about development on campus. The key is how much they should improve from one season to the next. We’ll get a glimpse of that in the spring, but for now, it appears Johnson has an edge in this competition.