It was tough sledding for South Carolina football last season. The Gamecocks limped home to a disappointing 2-8 record, firing head coach Will Muschamp with three games remaining in the 2020 campaign. Athletic Director Ray Turner wasted no time in bringing in a familiar face to replace Muschamp, ushering in a new era of South Carolina football under the direction of first-time head coach Shane Beamer — a South Carolina native and a former assistant coach for the Gamecocks under the legendary Steve Spurrier from 2007-10.
While the new head coach has been on campus conducting winter workouts for a little over three months now, the Beamer era officially kicks off on Saturday in Columbia with the first of 15 spring practice sessions, culminating with the annual Garnet and Black Game inside Williams-Brice Stadium on April 24. With that comes a renewed sense of optimism and energy. However, there seem to be more questions than answers for the Gamecocks heading into this critical spring camp. The hope is that the next few weeks will go a long way in addressing some of those questions, as well as providing some insight into the future direction of the program.
5 Storylines to Watch During South Carolina's Spring Practices
1. Getting acclimated
The Gamecocks' plate will be as full as any team in the country this spring. Not only will the USC players be tasked with processing a brand-new playbook, they will also be making the difficult transition to new schemes on both sides of the football — a unique "multiple" style offense under new OC Marcus Satterfield and a new base 4-2-5 scheme under the direction of DC Clayton White. And there could be a steep learning curve as the players acclimate to the on-field coaching styles of the new staff.
The coaches will have their work cut out for them as well. On top of installing the new schemes, Beamer and Co. have limited time to identify the players that best fit their system. They also have a short window to develop much-needed depth and leadership on a roster that features an eclectic mix of new and old faces. Additionally, spring practice will be vital in establishing a new culture and laying the foundation that will determine the future direction of the program.
2. The quarterback competition
Collin Hill and Ryan Hilinski (transfer to Northwestern) have moved on from the program, leaving the Gamecocks with just three scholarship quarterbacks and one former walk-on set to compete for the starting job this spring. Dual-threat signal-caller Luke Doty will get the first crack at the starting gig as the only quarterback on the roster with SEC experience. Doty appeared in six games and made two starts under difficult circumstances for the Gamecocks last season as a true freshman — completing 61 percent of his pass attempts for 405 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He also had 91 rushing yards on the year.
While Doty looks to have the inside track, Beamer has made it very clear that, like every other position battle this spring, the quarterback competition will be wide open. That means Doty will have to outshine FCS transfer Jason Brown, true freshman Colten Gauthier and former walk-on Connor Jordan to earn the starting nod in a competition that could linger well into fall camp.
Brown appears to be the biggest threat to beat out Doty, with Gauthier playing the role of longshot contender. Brown earned FCS All-American honors at St. Francis (PA), where he threw for a single-season school record 3,084 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2019. Gauthier, the No. 23-ranked pro-style high school quarterback in the nation, should have ample opportunity to make a strong impression on the coaching staff as well. Can Doty firmly establish himself as the clear-cut starter this spring? Or will Brown and/or Gauthier present a serious challenge? It should be interesting.
3. Help wanted in the secondary
The Gamecocks have been hit hard by attrition over the last few months. But no position group has suffered more key losses than the secondary. Star cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu opted out to focus on the NFL Draft following the termination of Muschamp. They also lost standout defensive backs Jammie Robinson (Florida State), John Dixon (Penn State), and Shilo Sanders (Jackson State) to the transfer portal, leaving the Gamecocks woefully short-handed and inexperienced in the secondary heading into spring practice. And considering South Carolina's transition to a base 4-2-5 defense under White, it will be critical for the Gamecocks to find some answers and establish depth on the back end of their defense this spring.
The good news is that the cupboard isn't completely bare for the South Carolina secondary. Redshirt sophomore Cam Smith returns at cornerback after a solid 2020 campaign that included two interceptions. The Gamecocks also return a trio of experienced safeties in Jaylin Dickerson, R.J. Roderick, and Jaylan Foster.
Georgia Southern transfer David Spaulding and a pair of highly touted juco cornerbacks in Marcellas Dial and Isaiah Norris were also brought in to help bolster the secondary. Spaulding and Dial should feature prominently in the competition at cornerback this spring, while Norris arrives later this summer. Other options that hope to carve out more prominent roles for themselves in the secondary this spring include Joey Hunter (limited this spring — foot), Dominick Hill, and O'Donnell Fortune. Junior cornerback Darius Rush (recovering from shoulder surgery), Assumption College transfer Carlins Platel and true freshman La'Dareyen Craig will join the competition later this summer.
4. Who will step up at wide receiver?
Outside of star receiver Shi Smith, South Carolina's struggles at wide receiver last season were well documented. And with Smith now off to greener pastures in the NFL, there are some big shoes to fill. That will be the task at hand for Beamer and new wide receivers coach Justin Stepp this spring. The good news is that there are plenty of contenders. In fact, there will be 12 scholarship-wide receivers competing for playing time this spring. And every single one of them has a legitimate shot at making a big impression, in what is shaping up to be the most compelling and wide-open position battle of spring camp.
The Gamecocks return plenty of experience at the position. Xavier Legette, Josh Vann, Dakereon Joyner, and Jalen Brooks all have multiple starts under their belts. However, none of those players have been able to make a significant impact during their time in Columbia. That also goes for injury-plagued wide receivers OrTre Smith and Randrecous Davis, both of whom opted out last season and hope to be major factors in their return this season.
Georgia Tech transfer Ahmarean Brown may be the most intriguing candidate heading into spring camp. The speedy wideout averaged 18.1 yards per catch and accounted for 10 touchdowns over the last two seasons for the Yellow Jackets. Brown is expected to make a significant impact in his first year as a Gamecock. At 6’7"-242 lbs., E.J. Jenkins is another intriguing transfer to keep tabs on this spring.
Speedy freshman Sam Reynolds, redshirt freshmen Mike Wyman and Ger-Cari Caldwell, sophomore Rico Powers, and senior Chad Terrell are some of the other wide receivers that hope to crack the rotation this spring. True freshman O'Mega Blake will add to the already heated competition this summer.
5. Positions of strength
There are legitimate concerns and question marks regarding several position groups for South Carolina heading into spring camp. However, there are some real positions of strength for the Gamecocks that will be worth monitoring this spring as well. Chief among them is a running back room that looks to be as good as any in the SEC. All-SEC running back Kevin Harris returns after leading the conference in rushing yards per game last fall. And all eyes will be on former 5-star running back MarShawn Lloyd this spring as he makes his way back from a torn ACL, albeit in a limited capacity. Tight end also appears to be a position of strength for USC, with the return of Nick Muse to go along with promising prospects in Keveon Mullins and Jaheim Bell.
Despite losing standout offensive lineman Sadarius Hutcherson, the Gamecocks should see improvement in the trenches with the return of eight players along the offensive line who have all made starts during their college careers. The Gamecocks should be stout in the trenches on the other side of the ball as well. All-SEC edge rusher Kingsley Enagbare is the headliner along the defensive line, while former five-star defensive linemen Zacch Pickens and Jordan Burch look to take a big step forward this spring. The Gamecocks also added edge rusher Jordan Strachan by way of the transfer portal to help bolster the pass rush after racking up an FBS-best 10.5 sacks last season at Georgia State. It will be interesting to see how these position groups and key players progress over the next few weeks.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top screengrab courtesy of @GamecocksOnline)