South Carolina football: 5 most important returning players in 2020
Despite the 4-8 record in 2019, and the first postseason absence since 2015, South Carolina lost a boat load of talent from the roster. Two of the most valuable players were all-time great WR Bryan Edwards and DL Javon Kinlaw. Kinlaw is expected to be taken in the top half of the first round of the NFL Draft, and Edwards, in a deep receiver class, by Day 2.
They’re only 2 players out a slew of departures, including 3 top flight running backs, 2 more defensive linemen and consistent veteran LB T.J. Brunson.
Overall, the Gamecocks return 11 starters in 2020, 4 on offense, along with K Parker White, and 7 on defense.
QB Ryan Hilinski
Hilinski is coming off minor knee surgery, but should be fine for spring practice as he tries to learn the new Mike Bobo playbook, and how the new offensive coordinator will run the offense. This is a critical time for Hilinski who showed alternating stretches of growing pains and out-sized talent that led him to being a national recruit from California. Hilinski made 11 starts as a true freshman and completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,357 yards. Bobo’s first priority is finding playmakers around him as Shi Smith is the only proven player to get the ball to in 2020. Hilinski, like many freshmen, had dramatic highs and lows, such as big performances against Alabama and Georgia, before his injury, and concerning outings against Missouri and Texas A&M. With a coach in Will Muschamp facing the hottest of hot seats, a strong season from his quarterback is paramount. There’s almost no conceivable way that the Gamecocks can reach a bowl game without a solid season from Hilinski. And without a bowl berth, Muschamp would be a serious pink slip candidate.
DL Aaron Sterling
Defensive line was one of a couple positions to see a dramatic departure in talent. Javon Kinlaw, Kobe Smith and D.J. Wonnum will be difficult to replace, and that’s why Sterling needs to step up. Sure, he’ll receive help from the likes of Zacch Pickens and perhaps multiple blue chip incoming freshmen, but Sterling has a chance to be at his best after he bounced back from an injury-shortened 2018 season last year. Sterling in 2019 had 6 sacks and showed versatility inside as a tackle on pass-rush situations. Sterling will understandably see more attention from opposing offensive lines as they won’t have Kinlaw and Wonnum to worry about. Sterling has been a bit underrated in his career, but he’s largely consistent when healthy. If he makes 6 more sacks as a senior, he would have 15 for his career, which would make him tied for 9th in school history.
OL Sadarius Hutcherson
With a young quarterback trying to develop, and wholesale changes at running back, South Carolina needs the kind of veteran leadership along the offensive line that Hutcherson provides. Hutcherson has started all 25 games for the Gamecocks over the last two seasons. He played guard in 2018, and started the first 11 games of the 2019 season at left tackle before he moved to left guard for the Clemson game. Cross-training and injury fill-in is important and Hutcherson offers that versatility. Hutcherson with Jakai Moore and Dylan Wonnum, as he recovers from hip surgery, will provide the core nucleus of the offensive line in 2020.
LB Ernest Jones
Jones not only led South Carolina with 97 tackles, he was also 5th in the SEC, and lived up to the high expectations he had coming into the 2019 season. He had double-digit tackles in most of South Carolina’s toughest games, including against North Carolina, Georgia, Appalachian State and Texas A&M. Jones’ veteran presence offers stability up the middle as the Gamecocks have increasing youth on the defensive line, and some turnover at safety.
CB Jaycee Horn
This position could easily be Israel Mukuamu or Horn, but Mukuamu may move to safety, and Horn has shown more of a penchant to play in the NFL, as early as he can, so a big season in 2020 could help that cause. With those NFL dreams, Horn a 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior, still is looking for his first career interception, so what better time to deliver a slew of picks? He had 40 tackles and tied for the team-high with 9 pass breakups a year ago. Horn is the son of former NFL wide receiver Joe Horn, and may go pro after 2020.