The future was not looking very bright for the South Carolina Gamecocksaround this time last year. First-year head coach Will Muschamp inherited a questionable roster from a team that had compiled a record of just 3-9 the year prior. And expectations were not much better for 2016 with the Gamecocks picked to finish dead last in the SEC East by most media outlets. While the season would provide South Carolina with its share of stumbling blocks, Muschamp managed to exceed expectations by doubling South Carolina’s win total from the previous year, earning a bid to the Birmingham Bowl in the process.
As South Carolina gets set to embark on it second spring practice under Muschamp, the outlook is more optimistic. A roster that returns nine starters on offense, and a defense that will likely feature nine senior starters in 2017, should provide a solid framework for Muschamp's continued efforts to get the Gamecocks back to prominence. But as optimism grows so do expectations from an impatient fan base eager to return to the glory years of the Steve Spurrier era. Another six-win season will simply not be good enough. The question is will the Gamecocks be able to deliver in year two of the Muschamp era? This spring could go a long way in helping make that determination.
5 Storylines to Watch in South Carolina's Spring Practice
1. The progression of Jake Bentley
Bentley, who was still in high school at this time last year, was thrown into the fire at quarterback midway through the Gamecocks’ 2016 season. He took his lumps in his freshman campaign, but ultimately proved to be the right man for the job. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns over the final seven games. But it was his performance in the Birmingham Bowl that has fans most excited for Bentley’s future under center. It was the only game in which he had more than a handful of days to prepare, and he responded with a monster performance, passing for 390 yards and three touchdowns in the exciting 46-39 loss to South Florida.
Now with a full offseason under his belt, the battle-tested sophomore is expected to make huge strides entering his first spring camp firmly entrenched as the starter. A talented group of pass catchers that include Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards, Hayden Hurst and early-enrollee OrTre Smith should provide Bentley with plenty of firepower, in what could evolve into one of the more dangerous passing attacks in the SEC. Bentley’s performance this spring should provide further insight on whether or not the South Carolina passing game is ready to take the next step forward.
2. The offensive line
The Gamecocks allowed 41 sacks last season, far and away the most in the SEC. South Carolina also averaged an SEC worst 3.68 yards per carry on the ground. That leaves new offensive line coach Eric Wolford with plenty to improve upon this spring. The good news is that the Gamecocks return four starters to an offensive line that should see marked improvement in 2017 under Wolford’s tutelage.
The first order of business this spring will be to find Mason Zandi’s replacement at left tackle. Junior Malik Young will transition over from right tackle and likely get the first shot. However, Young will have his work cut out for him trying to fend off rising redshirt freshman Sadarius Hutcherson to win the job.
Despite returning four starters, there will be some serious reshuffling up front for the Gamecocks this spring. Junior Zack Bailey, who is considered the Gamecocks’ best offensive lineman, will slide over to right tackle from the left guard position. That will leave D.J. Park, Donnell Stanley and several other promising candidates to compete for Bailey’s vacant left guard spot. Center Alan Knott and right guard Cory Helms seem to be the only returning starters locked in at the same positions, although that could change as well. It will be interesting to see how the Gamecocks’ revamped offensive line shakes out as spring camp progresses.
3. Who will emerge at running back?
One of the more hotly-contested position battles for the Gamecocks this spring will be at running back. Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner and Ty’Son Williams comprise a trio of talented sophomores that will compete for the starting job. Mon Denson is yet another sophomore running back that could work his way into the mix to make it a four-man race.
Dowdle should have the edge entering spring practice as the incumbent. His 5.7 yards per carry average as a true freshman provided one of the few bright spots in an otherwise sluggish South Carolina ground game last season.
Dowdle’s biggest competition this spring could come from Williams, a transfer from North Carolina. Despite sitting out 2016 per NCAA transfer rules, Williams routinely impressed the coaching staff in practice last season. He has been described as having “huge upside” by head coach Will Muschamp.
Turner is a legitimate contender as well. The speedy sophomore lacked consistency in 2016, but his big-play potential flashed at various times throughout the season. Breakaway speed and a solid skill set as a receiver out of the backfield are attributes that could set Turner apart from the rest of the competition.
4. The return of Skai Moore
The return of Moore may be the most exciting storyline for the Gamecocks heading into spring practice. The former All-SEC linebacker led South Carolina in tackles in each of his first three years before sitting out last season following neck fusion surgery. He will be a welcome addition for a South Carolina defense that struggled mightily at times in 2016 in his absence.
As one of just three scholarship linebackers on the Gamecocks’ roster entering spring camp, Moore’s return could not be coming at a better time. South Carolina will have reinforcements at linebacker on the way in the fall, but depth at linebacker will remain a serious concern throughout 2017. It will be crucial for Moore and fellow starting linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams to remain healthy throughout the season.
5. Restocking on special teams
Special teams was the least of Will Muschamp’s concerns heading into spring last year. However, it is one of the Gamecocks’ biggest unknowns entering the 2017 season. Elliott Fry (kicker), Sean Kelly (punter) and Drew Williams (long snapper) comprised one of the most experienced and proven special teams trios in the nation in 2016. All three have graduated, leaving a cast of inexperienced, yet promising, young specialists to fill some big shoes.
Redshirt freshman Alex Woznick and sophomore Michael Almond will compete to replace Fry, the Gamecocks’ all-time leading scorer. Woznick has received heaps of praise in the offseason and seems to be the early front-runner to win the job. The versatile Almond also will compete for the vacant punter and kickoff specialist jobs. Almond appears to be the favorite to win both, but redshirt sophomore Joseph Charlton could easily close the gap with a great showing this spring. As the only long snapper on the roster with actual game experience, Junior Nick McGriff should have an inside track for that opening with Ben Asbury and Harrison Freeman adding to that competition this spring.
Pre-Spring Outlook for South Carolina in the SEC
The Gamecocks enter year two of the Will Muschamp era in much better shape than this time last year. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some serious question marks that need to be addressed as South Carolina kicks off the first of 15 spring practices starting Feb. 25 in Columbia.
Defensive line, special teams and depth at linebacker are areas of concern. But perhaps the biggest question mark heading into spring is sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley. Much of the Gamecocks’ success in 2017 will hinge on whether or not Bentley can live up to the lofty expectations set forth by his performance in the Birmingham Bowl. Much-needed improvement from an offensive line that often failed to protect him in 2016 will be critical to that success as well.
At a minimum, the Gamecocks should take another step forward in 2017. They are nowhere near ready to compete with Alabama for SEC supremacy. But Muschamp has surprised us before, and South Carolina does have some dark horse appeal to make a run at the SEC East if everything falls into place.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.