The South Carolina Gamecocks entered the 2018 season with lofty aspirations following an impressive nine-win campaign the previous year. Plenty of media outlets were on board as well, pegging the Gamecocks as a dark horse candidate to win the SEC East. Unfortunately, that prediction wouldn’t come to fruition in a season plagued by injury and adversity, culminating in a 28-0 drubbing by Virginia in the Belk Bowl. But 2018 wasn’t a complete bust. The Gamecocks did manage to overcome long odds to ultimately win seven games and secure bowl eligibility for the third consecutive season under head coach Will Muschamp.
But life won’t get any easier for Muschamp’s Gamecocks in 2019 and making a bowl game for the fourth year in a row could be a tall order with a brutal slate of games on tap. That said, there’s reason for optimism with a wealth of talent returning, in addition to an influx of young talent courtesy of the 2019 signing class.
Muschamp and staff now have a chance to put that talent to the test, as South Carolina embarks on the first of 15 spring practice sessions today in Columbia, concluding with the annual Garnet and Black Game on April 6 inside Williams-Brice Stadium. It will provide our first look at the 2019 Gamecocks, and perhaps, clue us in on some of the question marks that have emerged during the offseason.
5 Storylines to Watch During South Carolina’s Spring Practice
1. Who will be Jake Bentley’s backup?
Bentley’s lack of progression over his first three seasons in Columbia could be a spring storyline in and of itself. But the senior quarterback doesn’t appear to be in any real jeopardy of losing his starting job. Not just yet, anyway. The real question is — who will emerge as South Carolina’s No. 2 quarterback for 2019?
Michael Scarnecchia, last season’s backup, has exhausted his eligibility, opening the door for three new contenders this spring. It should make for one of the more compelling position battles over the next few weeks, and it’s probably a competition that will progress into fall camp.
Redshirt sophomore Jay Urich is a long shot heading into the competition. But he’s been on campus the longest and probably has the best grasp of the offense, as well as the playbook. That could give him a leg up.
Redshirt freshman Dakereon Joyner made his way to Columbia with loads of hype, as one of the top dual-threat high school quarterbacks in America. He wasn’t quite ready as a true freshman, but with a full year now under his belt, Joyner should be poised to make a serious run at the No. 2 job this spring. His athletic ability can’t be matched by the other contenders. And the coaching staff has praised Joyner’s progression as a passer.
Early enrollee Ryan Hilinski may be the most intriguing contender. He has only been on campus for two months, which means that he will have the biggest learning curve this spring. But the highly touted signal-caller out of California doesn’t lack for talent or confidence. Hilinski also has a cannon for an arm. That might just be the edge he needs to come out on top.
2. The search for a feature running back
South Carolina’s struggles in the run game have been well-documented over the last few seasons. No one has really emerged as a reliable No. 1 running back during that time. And the running back-by-committee approach has yielded mediocre results to this point. That is something new running backs coach Thomas Brown hopes to change, as he goes in search of a true feature back this spring. But do the Gamecocks even have a running back on the roster capable of fulfilling that role?
Ty’Son Williams is set to transfer, leaving Rico Dowdle as the most likely candidate. The senior running back led the Gamecocks in rushing last season. Dowdle is unquestionably talented, but to this point, he has yet to display the level of consistency necessary to be a feature back. The same can be said for fellow senior Mon Denson, as well as A.J. Turner, who is expected to move back to running back following an experimental stint on defense at cornerback.
Redshirt freshmen Deshaun Fenwick and Lavonte Valentine are considered the wild cards, and both appear to have a lot of upside. Fenwick showed flashes in limited action last season, but it was primarily in mop-up duty against inferior competition. Valentine brings elite speed to the position, but no one really knows exactly what to expect from him after sitting out last season with a torn ACL. The staff has high hopes for early enrollee Kevin Harris as well, although he probably isn’t ready to shoulder the load.
3. Help wanted at safety
The Gamecocks were hit hard by injuries on the defensive side of the football last season, particularly at safety, where depth was already a major concern. That concern has lingered into spring, along with a depth chart that presents an unsettled secondary. The good news is that the Gamecocks have 15 practices to help sort it out, and several contenders that have the potential to shine on the back end of Will Muschamp’s defense.
R.J. Roderick should get first crack at one of the safety spots this spring. The former high school quarterback made a handful of starts for the Gamecocks at safety last season as a true freshman, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. Junior Jamyest Williams seems to be the favorite to land the other starting safety spot. But Williams will be limited this spring as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury. That will open the door for promising redshirt sophomore Jaylin Dickerson. The coaching staff has had nothing but high praise for Dickerson since he first arrived on campus, but his career has been largely derailed by injury. USC transfer Jamel Cook, sixth-year senior J.T. Ibe, and sophomore Jonathan Gipson are players that will get long looks at safety this spring as well.
4. Big shoes to fill on offense
There’s no bigger loss for the Gamecocks than do-it-all wide receiver Deebo Samuel. He’s literally irreplaceable. But collectively Bryan Edwards, OrTre Smith, Shi Smith, and Josh Vann should be able to help fill the void. Edwards will step into the No. 1 WR role this spring, and he is already a star in his own right. OrTre Smith is a player with huge upside, if he can ever get over his lingering knee issue. Shi Smith was outstanding last season and has the potential to be even better in 2019. And Vann will look to take a big step forward after flashing elite potential at times as a freshman last season. Spring practice should give us an early indication if this group will be up to the task next fall.
The Gamecocks also are charged with replacing two-year starter Dennis Daley at left tackle. Junior Sadarius Hutcherson is expected to slide over from his familiar right guard spot to fill the vacancy. It should be interesting to see how he performs at his new position on the outside this spring. We could see 6-foot-7, 320-pound redshirt sophomore Jordon Carty get an extensive look at left tackle this spring as well.
5. Early enrollees
In all, South Carolina has nine players from its 2019 signing class already on campus and ready to roll this spring. I previously touched on a couple of those players in Hilinski (QB) and Harris (RB). But there are a few other newcomers that could make a big impression on the practice field this spring as well.
Chief among them is five-star defensive lineman Zacch Pickens, the crown jewel of South Carolina’s 2019 recruiting efforts. Pickens will have plenty of competition as he looks to make a push for playing time at both defensive end and defensive tackle. But he is more than talented enough to make that happen, and Pickens is definitely a player that Gamecocks fans will want to keep close tabs on heading into the season. Joseph Anderson is another highly touted early enrollee along the defensive line that could carve out a role for himself this spring. And the coaching staff seems to be particularly high on freshman linebacker Derek Boykins.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.