SEC Country offers five best-case scenarios for South Carolina, as it progresses through Year 1 of the Will Muschamp era:
(The Garnet-Black spring game takes place this weekend in Columbia.)
The Gamecocks (3-9 last year) have had three head coaches in the last 12 months (Steve Spurrier, Shawn Elliott, Muschamp). However, that didn’t stop the SEC schedule-maker from having a little fun with South Carolina, via the following factoid:
For 2016, South Carolina is the only SEC school to open the season against two conference foes (road trips to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State).
1. One or two quarterbacks emerge from the camp pack … as complementary pieces
The Gamecocks’ quarterbacks have garnered plenty of media attention over the last few months, for various reasons.
On the good side, 4-star recruit Brandon McIlwain (the Class of 2016’s No. 2 dual-threat QB) will spurn this summer’s Major League Baseball draft (possible first-round pick), in pursuit of collegiate stardom in football.
On the unusual side, Jake Bentley — a highly touted recruit from Opelika, Ala., and the son of Gamecocks assistant Bobby Bentley — has opted to skip his senior year of high school and enroll early into South Carolina (this summer).
On the down side, Perry Orth — South Carolina’s leading passer last season (1,929 yards, 14 total TDs) — missed a good chunk of spring workouts with a broken collarbone.
Put it all together and it’s hard to decipher whether the spring-practice competition among quarterbacks will be anything definitive, relative to starting prominence for the Sept. 1 opener (at Vanderbilt), or a preamble to the more intense battle during fall camp.
Whoever earns the official starting nod in September (and let’s hope Muschamp actually reveals the starter … instead of mimicking Bobby Petrino’s bush-league tactics — 4:32 mark of this clip), I doubt that passer will log 100 percent of the reps for 12 games.
In fact, given the tremendous youth of the Gamecocks (read: rebuilding year), it would behoove Muschamp to continue the QB audition into the season, finding the proper mix of complementary assets (one pocket passer/one dual-threat).
2. Defender ‘Boosie’ Whitlow takes a major step forward as a sophomore
Right now, The State newspaper projects Whitlow (a blue-chip recruit from Alabama) as a rotational reserve along the defensive line/’Buck’ linebacker role.
However, that could be a placeholder situation in the interim, serving as motivation for Whitlow to make tangible progress this spring. In a perfect Muschamp world, South Carolina’s front seven will be fast, physical, relentless and flexible … and Whitlow seemingly fits the bill in all four categories.
Granted, it’s a small sample size. But in 2015, roughly one-third of Whitlow’s freshman tackles netted a loss in yardage.
3. Tailback David Williams has the stuff to command 20 touches in conference play
Muschamp doesn’t call the offensive plays; but like any head-strong head coach, he has a direct role in influencing policy or philosophy on that side of the ball.
Check this out: Here’s the run/pass ratio for Muschamp’s first three seasons as Florida’s head coach (2011-13):
2011: 59 percent run/41 pass
2012: 65 percent run/35 pass (Muschamp’s 11-2 campaign with the Gators)
2013: 60 percent run/40 pass
To be fair, Muschamp didn’t bring in noted pass guru Kurt Roper — currently the Gamecocks’ co-offensive coordinator — until the 2014 campaign (his final year in Gainesville). But it’s also hard to imagine any wild shifts to a 50/50 distribution model, unless South Carolina continually encounters double-digit deficits in conference play.
Simply put, Muschamp remains a creature of habit; and for the most part, he was raised on the virtues of running the ball, controlling the clock and (hopefully) dominating the line of scrimmage.
Which brings us to Williams: Outside of a strong cameo against Vanderbilt last year (seven carries, 49 yards), the Philadelphia native was essentially a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust option for the Gamecocks.
That might have been OK as South Carolina’s No. 3 back … but it won’t wash with a transitioning club that’s in desperate need of a quick, versatile workhorse back.
Does this open the door for Rod Talley? Or maybe the incoming freshmen, C.J. Freeman and Rico Dowdle (both 3-star recruits)? Only time will tell.
To help the cause, South Carolina’s strength along the offensive line comes on the right side, with right tackle Blake Camper and center Alan Knott anchoring the revamped group.
4. The word ‘injured’ doesn’t appear before Skai Moore’s name in print, once the season begins
Moore (110 tackles, two sacks, four INTs last year) might have been a prized commodity in the upcoming draft, had he opted to leave school early.
Instead, NFL scouts will log another full season of college observance, with Moore adapting to a more pass-coverage-focused role in Muschamp’s defense.
As such, Moore should have no trouble assimilating to an expanded role with the new Gamecocks, provided spring injuries like the recent “neck sprain” are merely precautionary in tone.
5. The output among wide receivers offers more balance than the previous two seasons
NFL draft prospect Pharoh Cooper was a two-year dynamo for the Gamecocks (2013-14), averaging 67 catches, 1,055 yards and 10 total touchdowns. Compared to the other South Carolina pass-catchers during that span, Cooper lapped the field with essentially double and triple the production.
Moving forward, the coaching triumvirate of Muschamp/Roper/Bryan McClendon (co-offensive coordinator) must get the Gamecocks offense moving in a positive direction in Year 1, perhaps without an alpha-dog receiver.
In other words, South Carolina doesn’t necessarily need a 1,000-yard receiver right off the bat.
For the time being, a robust group of 500-yard options — namely sophomore Deebo Samuel, senior Matrick Belton, freshman Bryan Edwards, sophomore Terry Googer, sophomore Jalen Christian — might serve a greater purpose in 2016.
The following factoid suggests this to be the case:
In Muschamp’s three-plus seasons at Florida, only one Gators pass-catcher broke the 600-yard mark in a season (Demarcus Robinson, 2014).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.