The 2019 season wasn't particularly kind to the South Carolina Gamecocks. It was an uphill battle from the start, facing arguably the most daunting schedule in the nation. But no one really expected the Gamecocks to be 4-8 and miss out on a bowl game for the first time in the Will Muschamp era. Sure, there was the big upset on the road against Georgia, and the Gamecocks were finally able to get over the hump against Kentucky under Muschamp. But it was mostly a season to forget.
While the 2020 schedule is shaping up to be slightly more forgiving for South Carolina, life won’t get much easier in what could be a make-or-break season for Muschamp. That said, there's reason for optimism with a wealth of talent returning on the USC roster, in addition to an influx of young talent courtesy of the 2020 signing class.
Muschamp and his revamped coaching 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 & Black Spring Game on April 4 inside Williams-Brice Stadium. It will provide our first look at the 2020 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. Mike Bobo/New offense?
South Carolina’s struggles on offense last season were well documented. The Gamecocks ranked 96th in the FBS in total offense (371.9 ypg) and 104th in scoring offense (22.4 ppg) under the direction of coordinator Bryan McClendon. A change was clearly needed, and Muschamp didn’t hesitate to make that change this offseason, calling on Bobo, a former college teammate and Colorado State head coach, to lead his offense in 2020.
During his time as head coach and offensive play-caller at Colorado State, Bobo engineered some of the most productive offenses in school history. Prior to becoming head coach at Colorado State, Bobo built quite the reputation as a top-flight offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at his alma mater (Georgia) — mentoring the likes of Aaron Murray, Matthew Stafford, and David Greene.
The question is — what can we expect from Bobo’s offense at South Carolina? Player personnel dictated a pass-heavy approach for his offenses while at Colorado State. However, Bobo has expressed a desire to employ a more balanced attack in his return to the SEC. He also stated that he wants to place more emphasis on the power run game and play-action passing. We should learn plenty more about Bobo’s plans for the Gamecock offense as spring progresses.
2. New-look coaching staff
In addition to the change at offensive coordinator, the Gamecocks’ overhauled coaching staff will take on a much different identity compared to this time last year. In fact, only three of Will Muschamp’s on-field assistant coaches return to the same position that they held last season. That short list includes defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, offensive line coach Eric Wolford and outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson.
Meanwhile, several other returning Gamecock assistants find themselves in new roles this spring. Most notably — Bryan McClendon — who will now focus exclusively on coaching wide receivers after also serving as offensive coordinator last season. Bobby Bentley transitions from tight ends to running backs coach, a position which he previously held at USC from 2016-18. And Kyle Krantz takes over as special teams coordinator for 2020 after assisting in that role in 2019.
There will be plenty of new faces joining Muschamp’s revamped staff as well. Chief among them is the aforementioned Mike Bobo, who will pull double duty as South Carolina’s quarterbacks coach, replacing the fired Dan Werner. Rounding out the new additions are tight ends coach Joe Cox (by way of Colorado State), defensive line coach Tracy Rocker (by way of Tennessee), linebackers coach Rod Wilson (by way of the Kansas City Chiefs), and new strength and conditioning coach Paul Jackson (by way of Ole Miss). It will certainly be interesting to see how the new-look coaching staff acclimates this spring.
3. The progression of Ryan Hilinski
The former high school All-American quarterback was thrown to the wolves last season after Jake Bentley went down with a season-ending injury in the opener against North Carolina. And while Hilinski certainly had his shining moments, his freshman campaign left plenty to be desired overall. Nagging injuries and inconsistent offensive line play didn’t help his cause. But Hilinski will need to take a big step forward as a sophomore for South Carolina’s offense to be successful.
The good news is that he enters spring healthy. Hilinski also gets a fresh start in a new offense under the tutelage of Mike Bobo. During his introductory press conference, South Carolina’s new OC/QB coach didn’t sugar coat Hilinski’s fundamental shortcomings last season, while also expressing his excitement to work with the young signal-caller on his development this spring.
True freshman Luke Doty and redshirt junior Jay Urich appear to be Hilinski’s primary competition heading into spring camp. Doty, a former four-star prospect, isn’t expected to make a big push for the starting job, but he is considered the top contender to exit spring as Hilinski’s backup. That said, Doty will have to beat out the more seasoned Urich, who makes the move back to quarterback after a stint at wide receiver last season. Colorado State grad transfer Collin Hill will join the QB competition this summer after continuing to rehab a torn ACL this spring. Hill, who knows Bobo’s system better than any quarterback on the roster, could possibly push for the starting job in fall camp. Of course, that will hinge heavily on Ryan Hilinski’s progression (or lack thereof) this spring.
4. Help wanted at the skill positions
South Carolina returns six starters on offense from last season. However, four of those players are offensive linemen, which means there are plenty of vacancies to be filled at the skill positions. Most prominently at the running back position — where Rico Dowdle, Tavien Feaster, and Mon Denson have all exhausted their eligibility, taking with them 80 percent of the Gamecocks’ rushing yards from last season.
The good news is that South Carolina has three very talented running back prospects on the spring roster that should help fill the void — including sophomores Kevin Harris and DeShaun Fenwick. But it’s true freshman MarShawn Lloyd that seems to be generating the most buzz heading into spring practice. Lloyd, the No. 5-ranked running back in the country (247Sports composite) out of Maryland’s famed DeMatha High School, appears poised to make a serious run at a starting role this spring.
With star wide receiver Bryan Edwards headed for greener pastures in the NFL, so goes much of the Gamecocks’ production at that position as well. Senior Shi Smith is South Carolina’s top returning wide receiver after catching 43 passes for 489 yards and two scores last fall. Behind Smith, the competition at wide receiver should be fierce this spring with Josh Vann, OrTre Smith, and Xavier Legette all vying to take on bigger roles. Dakereon Joyner, who will be making a full-time switch to wide receiver this spring after splitting time at quarterback last season, is another intriguing player that could make an impact. Early enrollee Mike Wyman could make his presence felt as well.
5. Big shoes to fill along the defensive line
While finding quality depth at the linebacker positions and in the secondary will be a huge priority this spring, the Gamecocks appear to be in great shape with the back half of their defense. But there are some gigantic shoes to fill along the defensive front, both literally and figuratively, following the departure of star defensive linemen Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Wonnum and Kobe Smith.
Fortunately, there will plenty of talent on hand this spring — and more on the way this summer — to help fill those spots. Senior defensive end Aaron Sterling is a shoo-in to land a starting job this spring after leading the Gamecocks in tackles for loss (10) and tying for the team lead in sacks (6.0) last fall. Senior Keir Thomas seems like a safe bet to land one of the starting defensive tackle jobs. Thomas was forced into an unexpected redshirt last season after starting 25 games from 2016-18. Former five-star prospect Zacch Pickens and Rick Sandidge will likely battle it out this spring for the other defensive tackle spot. And Brad Johnson appears to be the front-runner to replace Wonnum at the Buck position this spring, although Rodricus Fitten figures to play a prominent role in that competition as well.
Players such as Joseph Anderson, Jabari Ellis, Devontae Davis, and M.J. Webb also will be vying to carve out bigger roles for themselves along the defensive line this spring. And the competition for spots in the defensive line rotation should really heat up this summer with Kingsley Enagbare and Tyreek Johnson joining the fray after sitting out spring practice with injuries. Several highly touted newcomers will get in the mix later this summer as well, including five-star prospect Jordan Burch.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.