South Carolina football: Future will be on display in Saturday's spring game
Much of the discussion from Will Muschamp this spring is restocking the roster with more players who can contribute across the field. The fourth-year South Carolina coach is looking for more competition that will lead to better depth and ultimately an upgrade in the program.
There’s not much that has changed in relation to the backup quarterback position, though the practice and scrimmage snaps have been evenly spread between Dakereon Joyner, a redshirt freshman, true freshman Ryan Hilinski and redshirt sophomore Jay Urich.
It’s one of the more talked about position battles this spring, but Muschamp admitted last week that it might not be decided until August training camp. However, he would prefer to decide before the season begins, he said.
The Gamecocks will offer a glimpse into the development of each player at their Garnet and Black game at noon on Saturday.
“Competition is what you need on your football team to create the kind of consistency you want to have,” Muschamp said. “We were a very inconsistent football team last year, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But to see the guys competing at a high level in a lot of areas on our football team is good, and we’ve got a lot more talent on our team than we’ve had.”
There’s been “shining moments” for all three quarterbacks not named Jake Bentley, but Muschamp hasn’t named a clear No. 2. Muschamp said Bentley won’t play much Saturday, maybe a couple of series in each half. Saturday, for the most part, will belong to the backups.
One area that has shown arguably the most dramatic improvement is in the secondary, a position that caused some concern last year, and has experienced several injuries, including to veteran Jamyest Williams, who is still not at 100 percent. But a host of players drew praise from Muschamp, including Israel Mukuamu, Jaycee Horn, R.J. Roderick and J.T. Ibe. The coaching staff feels comfortable with the versatility of players to be used at multiple positions, however, a freshman will need to step in, at least at nickel.
“Those guys are playing really well,” Muschamp said. “To me competitive edge is a talent. Those guys like to compete. They like to practice. … I’ve been very pleased with where they’ve come as far as the spring is concerned and their development as a player.”
Bentley has seen the confidence and even swagger, too, on defense.
“You can definitely see it, and it definitely starts with the guys on the back end,” the quarterback said. “Kind of trickles its way through down to the defensive line. Everybody on defense has that confidence about them that they want to go win every play. That’s going to make our whole team better, definitely our team better on offense. Because Jaycee and Israel want me to throw at them every play, and it’s really great to see them come along and make plays.”
As a way to combat depth issues, South Carolina has cross-trained several defensive backs, “so everyone gets a chance to understand their spot and how it all fits together,” said Kyle Krantz, a special teams assistant who also coaches nickelbacks and linebackers.
Roderick, in particular, has made a smooth transition between safety and nickel.
“I think he likes the physicality of being down there and the techniques and all the stuff he’s doing is the same as playing safety,” Krantz said. “We’re just moving him closer to the box.”
Bentley’s SEC-leading interceptions might be magnified if that secondary finds traction, and it’s something to watch Saturday, even in a controlled environment. That’s the biggest area of improvement for one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC.
Outside of Hilinski, blue-chip defensive line prospect Zacch Pickens will be one of the most watched players at the spring game, and he’s part of an improved defensive line that Muschamp said has gained valuable experience after playing a slew of true freshman last season. Joseph Anderson and Rick Sandidge were a couple other young players noted by Muschamp when he was candid in describing how true freshmen were overmatched last season along the defensive line that was short on depth.
As several young players emerge, especially on defense, South Carolina returns a veteran wide receiver in Bryan Edwards, who understands his role as a leader.
“It’s known in our room, I’ve got the most experience,” he said. “So it’s a leadership role I took on upon myself. Nobody really has to tell me you’re the guy. It’s pretty much well known in the locker room. Everybody knows that.”