COLUMBIA, S.C. — Will Muschamp took over a South Carolina football program that won only three games in 2015 and turned it into a six-win team in his first season in Columbia.
The feat of a .500 regular season and bowl eligibility came as a surprise to many, including ESPN’s Tony Barnhart. The longtime college football reporter was on campus at South Carolina on Tuesday as the Gamecocks held their annual pro day.
He has been admittedly impressed with the progress made since Muschamp took over the USC program in Dec. 2015 and believes “the trajectory is all going up at South Carolina.”
“I thought they coached them really well,” Barnhart said. “They were 2-4 when they took the redshirt off Jake Bentley. That was a difficult and dramatic move. They don’t win six games and go to a bowl unless they make that move. I was surprised they could get to six. I said before the season started, six wins would be a really good season for South Carolina.”
Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper made the decision to play Bentley after USC’s bye week in mid-October. The move coincided with wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards returning from injuries, launching the Gamecocks to a 4-2 second half and bowl eligibility.
The emergence of offensive playmakers is one of the most significant changes Barnhart noted since the end of the Steve Spurrier era, as he said Muschamp has “dramatically upgraded” at the skill positions.
“At the end of the Spurrier time, they didn’t really have a bunch of guys who could make plays,” Barnhart said. “If I’m South Carolina, I’m encouraged. Now, they’ve gotta build the program. They’ve gotta get better on the offensive and defensive line and they’ve gotta get the program to a point that on a day like today there’s more than 12 NFL scouts here. That’s the goal.”
Barnhart also was on campus at South Carolina on signing day, when the Gamecocks inked a class expected to bring many immediate impact players at defensive back and wide receivers. He said the mood was exciting around the coaching staff on that day in early February, when he also had the chance to sit down with Bentley.
Barnhart left impressed most by the poise that Bentley displays as South Carolina’s quarterback of the present and future.
“He’s that son of a coach, grown up in the business,” Barnhart said. “He understands the various concepts of getting in and out of coverages, getting in and out of protections. To me, from talking to the coaches here, that’s the next big thing he’s gotta do. He can come to the line of scrimmage and understand protections and if he’s got a problem, he can recognize it and make the adjustment. Now, he’s gotta get to where he can actually change the protections at the line of scrimmage to get them in an advantage instead of a disadvantage and that just takes time.”
The next step to becoming a better, more consistent program comes in being more competitive on a week-to-week basis, Barnhart said. The Gamecocks currently are in the middle of spring football, working toward that goal in 2017 with the majority of its offensive talent returning.
But with new facilities built, more coming, solid recruiting and surprising first-season success, Barnhart thinks everything is on the up and up for the Gamecocks.
“They made a big step when they beat Tennessee,” Barnhart said. “They beat one of the marquee programs and that’s a good first step. Now the thing that they have to do is be competitive in every single game and find a way to do what the good teams in this league do: Find a way to make play to steal one at the end of the game. Get a defensive stop and those are the things you do when you become a mature football team. That just takes time.”