South Carolina football: Analyzing the Gamecocks' projected starting lineup
This is Year 4 of the Will Muschamp era and the Gamecocks return 14 starters from a team that finished 7-6 with a disappointing bowl loss to Virginia.
The offense is the notable strength with a veteran quarterback, experienced No. 1 receiver and a slew of running backs at a position that just received an upgrade with the addition of Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster.
Some questions surround an offensive line that returns 3 starters, but overall loses plenty of experience and remains a question mark.
On defense, most of the experience centers on the front seven, while there is plenty of talent, but also plenty of inexperience on the back line.
Here’s a look at their projected starting lineup and how I expect it to perform:
QB: Jake Bentley
RB: Rico Dowdle
RB: Tavien Feaster
Skinny: This is one of the strongest areas of the team, in talent and experience, especially with the addition of Feaster, to go with A.J. Turner and Mon Denson. But Bentley has a noted problem with interceptions that puts him near the bottom of the SEC in turnovers, and the red-zone mistakes are especially troubling.
The key developments will be Feaster’s transition, but also how the coaching staff implements backup QBs Ryan Hilinski and Dakereon Joyner, if at all.
LT: Sadarius Hutcherson
LG: Donell Stanley
C: Hank Manos
RG: Jovaughn Gwyn
RC: Dylan Wonnum
Skinny: Hutcherson and Stanley are moving to new positions, while Gwyn is competing with Eric Douglas. Hutcherson has played in 23 games and made 17 starts, including at both guard positions last season. Cross-training is essential along the line, and Stanley is comfortable after he played 12 games at center in 2018, but he has loads of experience. He has appeared in 38 games and made 26 starts, 10 at left guard and 4 at right guard.
Wonnum, meanwhile, started 7 games last season and was one of the more pleasant surprises of 2018. Manos also played at guard and started in the bowl game.
This unit has plenty of experience, but there are questions about the talent and strength.
Wide receivers/tight end
WR: Bryan Edwards
WR: Shi Smith
WR: Josh Vann
TE: Kiel Pollard
Skinny: Despite losing Deebo Samuel, this unit could be just as good as last year, as they haven’t gotten steady production out of the tight end position since the Baltimore Ravens drafted Hayden Hurst 2 years ago. Pollard needs to draw attention from the defense to open more room for the receivers.
Edwards led the team in receiving in 2017 and is poised to be a top-shelf receiver in the SEC. Smith has already started 16 games and had 45 catches last season. Vann appeared in every game last season. Combine this experience with Bentley and this unit measures up with some of the best in the SEC, especially in the East.
DE: Aaron Sterling
NT: Javon Kinlaw
DT: Kobe Smith
Buck: D.J. Wonnum
Skinny: D.J. Wonnum is the difference-maker in Muschamp’s most valuable “Buck” position. Kinlaw flirted with the NFL only to return to campus. Kinlaw dealt with a host of hip and groin injuries last season but still had a team-high 4.5 sacks. His best game was against Vanderbilt, when he had 3 tackles for loss, including 2 sacks. Wonnum similarly only appeared in 5 games because of injuries. Kinlaw and Wonnum need to have a slew of those kinds of Vanderbilt games to make a dent in the SEC East race. Sterling is another returning starter, and this is another area where there is talent and experience, and now the Gamecocks need production.
The weakness is the run defense, which last year was 13th in the SEC allowing 195 yards per game. That has to change.
OLB: Sherrod Greene
ILB: T.J. Brunson
OLB: Daniel Fennell
Skinny: Brunson represented the Gamecocks at SEC Media Days. He was by far the leading tackler last season with 106, while the next closest teammate (Greene) had 73. With the young and oft-injured secondary, Brunson needs to step up now more than ever. Fennell is someone to watch early, or when he’s available, after missing spring practice following an ACL injury suffered against Clemson. Greene, who has started 15 games over 2 seasons, needs to find consistency.
This is the most experienced unit on the defense, and it needs to show early and often.
CB: Israel Mukuamu
CB: Jaycee Horn
S: R.J. Roderick
S: Jamel Cook
Skinny: Horn and Mukuamu have loads of potential and already have a budding competitive streak that teammates have noticed in practice. Since they’re both taller than 6-feet, the NFL will take notice if they make waves. Horn started 11 games and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team after he recorded 45 tackles and had 8 pass breakups. But only Jamyest Williams and Mukuamu, among the returnees, had an interception in 2018.
In 2018, the Gamecocks had just 6 interceptions, 2nd-fewest in the SEC to Arkansas’ 5. By comparison, 7 SEC teams had double-digit interceptions.
K: Parker White
P: Joseph Charlton
KO returner: A.J. Turner
P returner: Bryan Edwards
Skinny: This is one of the more underrated units in the SEC, especially measured collectively. It will be a tall order to replace Deebo Samuel, but Turner is capable.
Charlton only made the 10th-most punts in the SEC and had the 5th-best average. He holds the school record for career punting average at 44.1 yards per punt, and last year set the single-season punting average mark at 44.83. White, meanwhile, has made 3 4th-quarter game-winning field goals.
Final thought …
The top unit here is wide receiver, both because Edwards stacks up as a No. 1 receiver that almost every other SEC team would accept, and because of the depth and experience with the others down the depth chart. Special teams is also solid, and could be especially counted on in close games that the Gamecocks are likely to be in.
The most concerning unit has to be the defensive front, because that is what separates good teams from great teams and provides the launchpad for an upset, especially against the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. The secondary’s youth is a question mark that could turn into a concern if new starters like Mukuamu and Cook are exposed.