COLUMBIA, S.C. – Will Muschamp gave himself a scare midway through leading his first preseason camp as the head coach at South Carolina.
He stood in front of his team and asked any players with more than 12 starts in their career as a Gamecock to raise their hand. He counted six hands in the air, a jarring reminder of the volume of unknowns Muschamp has on a young, inexperienced roster that plays its first game Thursday night at Vanderbilt.
“I just feel like there’s so many unknowns on our football team,” Muschamp said in mid-August. “It increases anxiety for me because I don’t really know how these guys are going to respond.”
The Gamecocks have spent the past month cramming for this season, learning a new system from a new coaching staff and having situational work hammered home. Now the true test comes. Muschamp is ready to see how his players respond when they run out of the tunnel in Nashville.
“I may be beating some of them out of the tunnel,” Muschamp said. “You don’t ever know how a young man is going to respond. He’s never been in that situation, been on national TV, in a conference road game, in a somewhat uncomfortable situation.
“You have an idea. You try and simulate game day as much as you can, but you can’t ever do that. That’s what’s exciting about it. That’s what’s fun about it.”
Muschamp couldn’t hold back his excitement for the season opener during his weekly press conference Monday. He also has been unable to avoid talking through the unknowns surrounding his team and the work completed to know as much as possible through 29 fall practices.
The Gamecocks spent fall camp with Muschamp throwing a heavy dose of situational work at them in practices and scrimmages. After the first scrimmage, Muschamp said he was running through more game situations in practice than he has in previous seasons in order to test his players’ decision making.
It’s because of the inexperienced roster — there are at least seven first-time starters — that Muschamp ramped up the focus on minor details in preparation for the adversity to be faced in any football game. That message of adversity was consistent throughout everything the Gamecocks have done to-date with a catch phrase Muschamp has coined.
“Coach Muschamp always preaches we have to be comfortably uncomfortable,” senior linebacker T.J. Holloman said. “That’s what these young guys are going to have to go through being on the road at Vandy and all the other games we are going to have to go on the road to.”
Holloman, one of the most experienced players on the roster, can’t remember his first road game. He does remember playing at Arkansas, which he described as a “very intense” experience, and his message to his teammates going into a road environment for the first time is to have fun, embrace the challenge.
That first challenge of being uncomfortable is Thursday night. It doesn’t stop there: The Gamecocks have three road games in among their first four before spending the entire month of October at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Junior running back David Williams scored his first career touchdown at Vanderbilt in 2014. Williams was quick to say that playing on the road is something that has to be experienced in order to understand it. But he and wide receiver Deebo Samuel both pointed to the way South Carolina has built a bond through August as tying the team together when they face an uncomfortable situation like playing on the road.
“Camp personally really brought all of us together, if you ask me,” Samuel said. “We stay here all day. We were always around each other. Then when we left, it was around 10 (p.m.), so we just came back and did the same thing over and over.”
That’s the way Muschamp wanted camp to be: The Gamecocks running through situation after situation over and over to be as prepared as a largely inexperienced bunch can be.
On Thursday, he’s going to see the results of that work in the tough camp he orchestrated.
“That’s one thing about our football team – we are going to continue to improve throughout the year, number one because of how we practice,” Muschamp said. “Football’s a developmental game and you’ve got to develop. They were kind of shocked earlier in the week, a couple of older players said, ‘We go good on good a lot.’ I said, ‘I know. That’s how you get better. Iron sharpens iron.’ We’re going to go good on good. I want fastball looks all the time. We’ll get you ready for the scout team, we’ll get you ready for the looks that an offense or a defense is going to give you, but good on good.
“That’s how you improve and get better. And because of our youth and inexperience, we’re going to improve tremendously throughout the year.”
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.