Jake Bentley and the Gamecocks have high hopes as spring practice gets under way in Columbia
On Wednesday, the South Carolina Gamecocks embarked on year three of the Will Muschamp era wtih the start of spring practice in Columbia. After inheriting a team that won just three games in 2015, Muschamp doubled the Gamecocks’ win total in his first season, earning an unexpected trip to the Birmingham Bowl. He followed that up with a nine-win effort in 2017, culminating in an impressive come-from-behind victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. The fiery head coach is now charged with keeping the Gamecocks on that upward trajectory, which is no small task in the highly competitive SEC.
The good news is that the Gamecocks return a solid roster for 2018. A nucleus that certainly has the potential to continue to trend in a positive direction. However, there are also some big shoes to fill, and a few question marks that could make it challenging for South Carolina to match or surpass last year’s success. Spring practice could go a long way in helping address some of those concerns and give us a better understanding of what to expect from Muschamp’s Gamecocks this fall.
5 Storylines to Watch During South Carolina's Spring Practice
1. New-look offense under Bryan McClendon?
Will Muschamp promoted McClendon from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator on an interim basis following Kurt Roper’s dismissal in December. McClendon answered the call, as an aggressive Gamecock offense would go on to put up 26 points against a top-three Michigan defense in the Outback Bowl. While that may not seem that impressive, Ohio State and Penn State were the only teams to score more points against the Wolverines last season. That was enough for Muschamp to remove the interim from McClendon's title.
Defense has shouldered most of the load for the Gamecocks over the last two seasons. But South Carolina will need to lean heavily on the offense in 2018 to continue on a positive path, making the stakes very high for the first-year offensive coordinator. The question now is what will the South Carolina offense look like moving forward?
Fortunately, we already have a small sampling from the Outback Bowl, where we saw a faster pace and a stronger sense of urgency on that side of the ball. It’s unlikely that we will see any sort of monumental overhaul from a schematic standpoint. However, more tweaks and fine-tuning are sure to come, and it will be interesting to see what adjustments McClendon may have in store as spring practice unfolds.
2. Jake Bentley's progression
Bentley was expected to make a huge leap in his second year as the starting quarterback for the Gamecocks. For various reasons, some beyond Bentley’s control, that didn’t come to fruition. The good news is that 2018 looks very promising for the junior quarterback to make that leap. Losing All-SEC tight end Hayden Hurst will sting a little, but virtually everyone else returns. That includes Bentley’s favorite target and elite playmaker, Deebo Samuel (right), who will be limited this spring as he makes his way back from a nasty leg injury suffered early last season.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Bentley’s progression this spring will be how he acclimates to new quarterback coach Dan Werner. Werner’s track record is exceptional when it comes to mentoring quarterbacks. He is responsible for developing several high-profile signal-callers in previous stops at Ole Miss and Miami. Werner is expected to have a similar impact on Bentley. If that happens, the future will be very bright for the South Carolina passing attack. Bentley still needs more help from his offensive line and the run game. But the ingredients appear to be in place for both to make positive strides this spring.
3. Offensive line
Aside from trying to find a viable successor to Hurst, the biggest question mark for the South Carolina offense is the offensive line. It wasn’t exactly a strength last season, allowing 29 sacks and providing little running room for a rushing attack that averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. And now they must find replacements for multi-year starters Alan Knott and Cory Helms.
The silver lining is that the Gamecocks enter spring practice with a wealth of experience to help fill those voids. They return six offensive linemen with multiple starts under their belts, including their top three linemen from last season in seniors Zack Bailey, Donnell Stanley, and Dennis Daley.
Offensive line coach Eric Wolford will do some shuffling among those returning veterans this spring to fill the two vacancies along the interior. There are sure to be a few underclassmen that will get into that mix as well. But Wolford shouldn’t have too much trouble piecing together a solid starting five this spring. And despite losing Knott and Helms to graduation, the South Carolina offensive line has the potential to be much improved in 2018.
4. Help wanted on defense
Sack leader D.J. Wonnum, linebackers Bryson Allen-Williams (shoulder, limited this spring) and T.J. Brunson, and defensive backs Rashad Fenton and Jamyest Williams (shoulder, out for spring) are all standouts from last season that will return for the South Carolina defense in 2018. But there are still plenty of big shoes to fill on that side of the football, including three starters in the secondary and three key defensive linemen from 2017. The biggest loss will be at linebacker, where leading tackler Skai Moore has exhausted his eligibility.
The cupboard isn’t bare for the Gamecocks on defense. But it will be critical for Muschamp and company to identify some of the younger players during spring practice that can step up to fill those holes, as well as add much-needed depth. There are a few players of note that Gamecock fans should keep a close eye on this spring. Redshirt freshman DB Jaylin Dickerson (shoulder, limited this spring) and sophomore LB Sherrod Greene are two that should come to the forefront in 2018.
5. Plenty of new blood
Twelve of the 22 signees from the Gamecocks’ top-20 recruiting class for 2018 are already on campus and set to compete in spring practice. Not only will that give them a big leg up on the other incoming freshman, there are a select few that could quickly make their way up the depth chart with a solid showing this spring. Four-star dual-threat quarterback Dakereon Joyner is one of those players. Joyner obviously isn’t in the running for a starting job with Bentley locked into that role, but the talented freshman could easily emerge from spring camp as the backup. Offensive lineman Hank Manos, defensive back Israel Mukuamu and linebacker Rosendo Louis are three additional early enrollees that are expected to make some noise this spring.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.