Gamecocks rank No. 40 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2017
South Carolina won six games and went bowling in head coach Will Muschamp’s first season despite having an offense that was among the least productive in the nation. Quarterback Jake Bentley is back to lead the Gamecocks’ attack and is one of 10 returning starters on that side of the ball. The defense also gets a big boost with the return of linebacker Skai Moore, who missed all of 2016 because of a neck injury. Moore’s presence will certainly help a unit that desperately needs to find a pass rush and features a secondary that has experience but must become more reliable. South Carolina should at least be competitive in every game with the exception of the finale against Clemson. How many games the Gamecocks win and where they fall in the SEC East standings will likely depend on whether or not the offense takes a small or significant step forward.
Previewing South Carolina Football’s Offense for 2017
For the first time in his five-year head-coaching career, Will Muschamp seems to have found the answer at quarterback. Sophomore Jake Bentley started seven games last year after skipping his senior season at Opelika (Ala.) High School to join the Gamecocks. Bentley threw for 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions and led South Carolina to an upset of Tennessee.
Bentley will be surrounded by plenty of offensive talent. Junior wide receiver Deebo Samuel is one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC. He had 783 receiving yards, 98 rushing yards and seven combined touchdowns last year despite being limited throughout the first half of the season due to injury.
The running game will be paced by returning sophomores Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner and North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams, but the most intriguing offensive prospect might be tight end Hayden Hurst, a former walk-on who spent two years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization before trying college football.
Previewing South Carolina Football’s Defense for 2017
“We have to get more guys we can count on up front,” Muschamp says. “We are very thin from the standpoint of experience and guys we feel like we can win the SEC East with. I’m just being honest. We have to get faster twitch and we have to get better rushers.” One name to watch is sophomore end Dennis Wonnum.
The good news is that linebacker Skai Moore, the team’s leading tackler in 2013, ’14 and ’15, is back after missing the 2016 season due to a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery. Moore brings more speed than the team had at the position last year, which should help in Muschamp’s system, and he’ll join Bryson Allen-Williams and T.J. Brunson to form a talented but thin linebacking corps.
The secondary brings back every starter but still is a work in progress. South Carolina spent spring practice trying to figure out who among Rashad Fenton, Jamarcus King and Chris Lammons would play the nickel and which two would get the starting cornerback jobs. Incoming four-star recruit Jamyest Williams will get a chance to play right away. At safety, D.J. Smith and Steven Montac return but need to improve their level of play.
Previewing South Carolina Football’s Specialists for 2017
Placekicker Elliott Fry, the school’s all-time leading scorer, is gone. The Gamecocks are expected to turn to a homegrown product, Alex Woznick, to replace him. South Carolina also must find replacements for punter Sean Kelly and longtime long snapper Drew Williams. The inconsistency of the competitors at all three specialist positions was a concern for Muschamp in the spring.
Muschamp and his coaching staff took over a roster so depleted that some of the struggles of the 2016 season — such as an offense that finished last in the SEC in scoring with 20.8 points per game — can hardly be held against them. It’s a different story in Year 2. The Gamecocks should build on the offensive momentum established with Bentley at the helm in the last half of 2016, but Muschamp’s defensive acumen will be tested by this year’s thin group.
The schedule starts out with a toss-up game against NC State that could set the tone, and there are another half-dozen games on the schedule that could go either way. How South Carolina fares in those will determine whether the Gamecocks are able to make a move in the SEC East standings.