South Carolina football: 5-step improvement plan for 2020
The Gamecocks are trying to move on from the disappointing and forgettable 4-8 season in 2019. It’s fair to expect some noticeable changes ahead in 2020.
The schedule is a bit more manageable next season, though South Carolina swaps Alabama for LSU in a game at Tiger Stadium. But Coastal Carolina, East Carolina and Wofford are the other nonconference games outside of Clemson.
The one major change is not only on the coaching staff, but also coaching philosophy as many observers have noted troubling trends for coach Will Muschamp over his head coaching career. The recruiting appears to be there, and the Gamecocks have gotten several players many other top programs recruited, but the results haven’t followed. The question is how much different will the coaching — and coaching staff — be in 2020?
Here are 5 steps to improve the program in 2020:
1. Offensive coordinator
Bryan McClendon gradually became the scapegoat of a lackluster offense this season as Ryan Hilinski’s development plateaued, especially the second half of the season. Muschamp likes to remind everyone that the Gamecocks actually had a good offense last season, and McClendon was in charge then. “No one was b——- last year when we averaged 425 yards and over 30 points a game. We’ve struggled this year, call it like it is. There’s a lot of different areas that are at fault and needs to get fixed and that’s what I’m going to do.” He added, “We have to make some changes moving forward. I’m not addressing anything as far as that’s concerned, so don’t ask.”
The expected hire will be Muschamp’s 5th offensive coordinator as a head coach.
Many people expect McClendon to get fired, and possibly another offensive assistant like Dan Werner, but the trouble is McClendon is known as a strong recruiter and has close ties with running backs coach Thomas Brown, who is another top recruiter. Muschamp has to navigate those tricky waters of remaking the staff without losing the foundation to build from.
Two interesting names mentioned for the likely open OC job are former Arkansas coach and Clemson OC Chad Morris, and former LSU and Maryland OC Matt Canada. Of course, it’s a tricky hire for any candidate because they absolutely know Muschamp is on thin ice entering 2020.
2. Ryan Hilinski
The sensational freshman had a strong start, but could never seem to build on the productive games against Charleston Southern and Alabama. Though he was 15-for-20 passing at Georgia for 116 yards and a TD before he left with the left knee injury. Hilinski has all the tools many expected as a highly-regarded recruit, and he even showed some running ability against Vanderbilt. Muschamp maintains that Hilinski improved “incrementally” each week from preparation, decision-making and game-management.
“He understands those things, and it just takes time,” Muschamp said before the Clemson game. “And what he’s doing’s very difficult. He’s playing the hardest position on the field as a true freshman. We need to do a better job around him, helping him. But I’ve been very proud of Ryan and how he’s handling it, ’cause he’s handling a lot.”
But against Clemson, Hilinski was sacked on a 1st-and-15 play when he didn’t throw the ball away, and another time he threw into triple coverage. Muschamp’s hire at OC, if that truly happens, will need to be as much based on Hilinski’s development, or incoming recruit Luke Doty, as any play-calling or game strategy expertise.
3. Beware of the transfer portal
The new system that makes it easy to announce a player’s intention to transfer has shaken up college football, and left many programs, winning or not, trying to figure out how to manage a roster if playing time changes. After all, the Tavien Feaster situation helped salvage a pedestrian running game.
That’s no different here as Dakereon Joyner, Jay Urich, Deshaun Fenwick, Shilo Sanders, Cam Smith and Vinnie Murphy are just some of the players who saw their roles change or were limited in 2019. Former starting QB Jake Bentley already announced he is transferring after graduating in December. Three running backs will graduate, but top recruit MarShawn Lloyd is expected to make a splash.
4. Finish strong in recruiting
Speaking of Lloyd, the Gamecocks have a solid class led by a top 50 player in Lloyd and another 4-star QB in Doty, who is ranked No. 71 in America. The Gamecocks are No. 7 in the SEC, but 3rd in the East ahead of Tennessee, according to 247Sports. It’s not quite a good a class as last year, where at least 4 players saw steady playing time. But it’s still ranked No. 19 in the country, and covers 8 positions with 7 4-star prospects. Somehow, the coaching and administration turmoil in the last month has not dramatically affected recruiting. Getting 1 or 2 more commits would put this class over the top. After all, the Gamecocks already have commitments from 4 of the top 10 players from South Carolina.
5. Close the gap with Clemson
It might come in recruiting, or perhaps with an assistant coach hire, but South Carolina needs to do something to close the gap with its Upstate rival. Perception might come first, because it’s a long time until the next Palmetto Bowl. But since the average margin of victory the past 6 seasons is 24.3 points, there’s no one outside of the Garnet and Black who sees this snowball stopping anytime soon. Especially with Trevor Lawrence returning for his junior year and Clemson in position to add the No. 1-ranked recruiting class.
Muschamp mentioned confidence as one area that needs to change. Sure, it won’t show up on any depth chart, box score or recruiting ranking, but it is likely the first thing to turn if the Gamecocks are able to resurrect the program back toward double-digit wins.
“We are struggling in a lot of areas. I don’t have enough fingers to put in the dike right now,” Muschamp said after the game. “Confidence is a major issue. We are having a hard time in a lot of areas. To sit there and blame one person, I am not going to do that. We need to be more productive. That’s the bottom line. If you give one reason, that’s an excuse. That’s kind of the way it is these days. I’m tired of talking about it. At the end of the day, we need to get better.”