South Carolina’s season was lost in essence before the first Saturday of the season. The Gamecocks lost 52-28 at home to Texas A&M on the first Thursday night of the year, exposing Carolina’s defense and derailing the Gamecocks’ bid for the SEC East. South Carolina finished 7-6 overall and 3-5 in the SEC for its worst season since 2009. The defense was the main culprit, and Steve Spurrier hired Jon Hoke with hopes of a remedy. The question at South Carolina, though, seems to be more big picture: Was 2014 a minor speed bump for a program that won 33 games in the previous three seasons or was it the first season in a decline.
Previewing South Carolina’s Offense in 2015
First things first: South Carolina must find a quarterback. Dylan Thompson set the school’s single-season passing record last year with 3,564 yards. The frontrunner to replace him entering the fall is sophomore Connor Mitch. The former four-star prospect threw for 12,078 yards at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, N.C., with 63 touchdown passes in his senior season.
“Connor Mitch is tremendously improved from when he first got here,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier says. “He seems to have a little bit more confidence and knows what to do now. I think he’s ready to take some giant steps.”
Mitch threw six passes last year, completing two of them for 19 yards. He will be trying to hold off junior walk-on Perry Orth, who bags groceries at Publix to help offset his collegiate expenses, and freshman Michael Scarnecchia, a lightly recruited Floridian who redshirted last year.
Senior Brandon Wilds and sophomore David Williams will share carries at running back after Mike Davis’ early entry into the NFL Draft. Junior wide receiver Pharoh Cooper didn’t get much work in the spring because the Gamecocks already know what he can do. The All-SEC first-teamer will be Spurrier’s go-to guy after catching 69 passes for 1,136 yards in 2014.
Up front, the Gamecocks must replace stalwart A.J. Cann, who started 51 games at South Carolina. Senior right tackle Brandon Shell takes up the status of grizzled veteran thanks to his 36 career starts, twice as many as anyone else on the team.
Previewing South Carolina’s Defense in 2015
The defense was terrible last year, prompting Spurrier to hire old friend Jon Hoke, who coordinated defense for Spurrier at Florida from 1999-2001 and spent the last 13 years in the NFL as a defensive backs coach.
“Jon fits in everywhere he goes because he’s a good person, good guy,” Spurrier says. “He’s been around a lot of really sharp coaches, and I think he’s a sharp coach. But he’s got a lot of work to do, he will tell you that.”
The Gamecocks were No. 92 in the nation in total defense last year, and Hoke already has made changes. South Carolina will use a base 4-3 rather than last year’s juggling between a 4-2-5 and 3-4 look, and several players have swapped positions. Safety T.J. Gurley is now a nickel back. Spur Jordan Diggs is a safety. Spur Larenz Bryant is a linebacker, and Bryson Allen-Williams is back to his natural position at strong-side linebacker. Graduate transfer safety Isaiah Johnson will be plugged in immediately.
None of that shuffling will matter, though, if the Gamecocks don’t improve their defensive line. They were No. 118 in the nation in sacks (14.0) and No. 121 tackles for a loss (52.0) last year. South Carolina recruited seven defensive linemen to help fix the problem. The most promising is junior college transfer Marquavius Lewis.
Previewing South Carolina’s Specialists in 2015
Kicker Elliott Fry, a 158-pounder who walked on out of Frisco, Texas, and won the job as a true freshman, is back for his junior season. He’s made 33-of-43 field goals for his career. Walk-on transfer Sean Kelly looks like the frontrunner for the punting job.
South Carolina opened spring practice with a sense of urgency that may have been lacking last season.
“Sometimes after you go 11–2 three years in a row, some people just assume, ‘We’re going to keep on winning,’ but it didn’t quite happen that way,” Spurrier says. “We were not a real strong team. We are by a long way not a finished product, but we’ve got time.”
The Gamecocks will be breaking in a new quarterback and rebuilding a defense that lost its morale along with a lot of games last year, so the time had better be well spent.