South Carolina is looking to fix a host of issues this offseason that left the Gamecocks in fourth place in the SEC East last season.
Will Muschamp has retooled his coaching staff, given offensive line coach Eric Wolford a raise and brought in Thomas Brown to coach running backs. The Gamecocks have a veteran quarterback and a pair of Top 70 recruits to be difference-makers in due time.
Some of the issues have needed to be resolved for years, but as the coaching tenure of Muschamp enters his fourth year in Columbia, his stamp on the program is especially evident.
Here are five realistic goals for this offseason:
1. Strengthen the running game
The addition of Brown comes at a time when the Gamecocks moved A.J. Turner to defense, and have not had a 1,000-yard rusher for five seasons. Mike Davis was the last one in 2013 with 1,183 yards. Brown should not only be an upgrade from Bobby Bentley at that position, he’s a bona fide recruiter in two hotbeds for the Gamecocks: metro Atlanta and south Florida.
Both as a player at Tucker High in Atlanta and as a Georgia player and assistant coach, and later as a Miami assistant, Brown is very familiar with those two key areas. Rico Dowdle, however, was the Gamecocks’ leading rusher, and just the 18th rusher in the SEC. Brown and the coaching staff as a whole need to elevate the running game throughout the spring.
2. Settling on roles for Dakereon Joyner and Ryan Hilinski
Joyner only appeared in one game (Chattanooga) in 2018, though he was thought to contribute in multiple games, and saw practice time leading up to the Belk Bowl. By indications from Muschamp, Joyner has improved most in the passing game, which was expected even with him being an early enrollee a year ago.
With a redshirt year behind him, it appears even more possible that he be inserted at least for special packages. With Michael Scarnecchia gone, Joyner and redshirt sophomore Jay Urich are the most experienced QBs outside of Jake Bentley.
For Hilinski, he brings an interesting presence as the second-ranked pro-style QB in his class. As we’ve seen in recent years with other highly-rated prospects at quarterbacks, a transfer is very possible if they don’t play early. Bentley, who has won 19 games, is set to become the all-time program leader in several categories. While Muschamp declined to pump much oxygen into a quarterback controversy last season when Bentley was injured, lest we forget that Bentley replaced an upperclassman in Perry Orth and another highly-touted freshman Brandon McIlwain.
3. Establishing depth in secondary
Walk-on Jason Senn had a cameo appearance late in the season because of a rash of injuries. Further shakeup in the depth chart came when Nick Harvey announced his intention to transfer, and J.T. Ibe received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA . There were four defensive backs signed in the most recent recruiting class. Factor in the losses of Keisean Nixon, Rashad Fenton and Steven Montac, no matter their talent, production or late-season drama, and there are plenty of questions about depth. The front seven has been fairly stable in recent years with consistent performers at linebacker and along the pass rush. But it’s the secondary that needs to quell the busted coverages and other headaches for the coaching staff.
4. Getting production from receiver post-Deebo Samuel
Losing a veteran presence and the team’s leading receiver will be a tall order to replace, but if you combine the production of Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith, it’s 100 catches for 1,519 yards and the same number of touchdowns as Samuel produced — 11. Add in Josh Vann, who played in every game in 2018, and fellow returnees Chavis Dawkins and Randrecous Davis, who all caught TD passes. Even without Samuel, the Gamecocks will feature one of the best receiving corps around. Take the spring to develop chemistry with Bentley and all of the quarterback options in whatever situation or strategy they choose to focus on.
5. Developing a pass rush
Javon Kinlaw led the team with 4.5 sacks in 2018, but that was just 22nd in the SEC. That’s part of the reason the Gamecocks were ninth in the SEC in sacks with 26.
This has been a consistent problem for the program since before Muschamp took the helm. The Gamecocks haven’t been in the top eight of the SEC in sacks since 2013.
They haven’t topped 26 sacks in a season since 2012 when they had 43 by a unit led by Jadeveon Clowney, who had 13. That’s obviously one of the goals of the addition of 5-star Zacch Pickens. The goal should be to elevate that number into the 30s, which would likely put South Carolina in the top 5 of the SEC as a team.