Jan. 26, 2017
By Brad Muller | More Features
Part 1 -- Youth Movement Helps Gamecocks Step Forward
As signing day approaches, the South Carolina Gamecocks look to build on the momentum established by Will Muschamp and his staff during his first season last fall. Last year's recruiting class played a big part in South Carolina doubling its win total and winning two more SEC games from the previous year to become bowl eligible. Local and national college football experts liked what they saw with Coach Muschamp's first team, recruiting class and player development.
"I think winning the Tennessee game late in the year was huge for the program," said ESPN.com senior writer Chris Low. "I just think their overall performance, despite playing so many young players, speaks well for the future. Plus, the way Will and his staff have set up their recruiting operation; they recruit the way you have to in the SEC. They just don't leave any stone unturned."
"I remember going to media day in Columbia, and people asked me what I thought would be a good year for South Carolina," said Tony Barnhart, college football analyst for the SEC Network and Gridiron Now. "I thought it was a very good year. Everyone knows about Jake Bentley, but I look at the production they got at running back and wide receiver, and you have to be impressed about that. They became more like an SEC offense. If you're a South Carolina fan, I think you have to be very encouraged."
"This was a group of players that you could immediately tell had the skillset to play at the highest level of college football," said Todd Ellis, South Carolina's radio play-by-play announcer. "It may be raw, but the skill and speed were there with many of those young players that hit the field."
With freshmen making an immediate impact, it showed how one recruiting class can make a difference.
"These players were better than some of the ones they already had," said Tom Luginbill, National Recruiting Director at ESPN. "You've got a blank canvas, so why not commit to some of those kids long term if you think they can help you? In this particular instance, I think it was more about needs being met by young guys that deserve to be on the field. Going forward, success on the field will bring success in recruiting. It's always cyclical, and it just works that way."
If you're a South Carolina fan, I think you have to be very encouraged.
"They got kids ready to play, and you saw them get better as the year went on," Low said. "That's a great sign. Look at how much more effective Bentley was towards the end of the season than he was when he first went in there. I think Will's ability to evaluate the kids that fit what he wants to do and then get them ready to play early is why they were able to have a bowl season this year."
How great was the impact of the younger players? Seventy-six of South Carolina's 113-man Birmingham Bowl roster were either freshmen (52) or sophomores (24). There were 13 true freshmen who saw game action in 2016, including seven who started. That matched Maryland, Ole Miss and Texas for the most true freshmen starters nationally.
"Experience is valuable, but the talent that they did bring in was an upgrade at several positions," said SEC Network/ESPN college football analyst and former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic. "You bring in Rico Dowdle at running back, and he made an impact. You bring in a guy like Bryan Edwards at wide receiver, and he was able to make an impact. And Jake Bentley was one of the most under-rated stories in college football this season. This young man graduated high school early, I don't care what his age is. He didn't go to high school his senior year. Then halfway through the season he ends up starting and helps get the team bowl eligible. It's a testament to what these guys (coaches) have done and are going to do."
"They did an outstanding job," Luginbill said. "It's no secret that the ability to bring in Jake Bentley late and get him to graduate a year early, certainly paid huge dividends. At the end of the day, that move made the difference in the season."
To further illustrate the impact of last year's recruiting class, consider that 78 percent of South Carolina's rushing yards and 73 percent of its passing yards were gained by freshmen. The rookie tandem of Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner combined for 1,261 rushing yards for an average of 5.1 yards per carry. Freshmen and sophomores also accounted for more than 95 percent of the team's receptions and receiving yards. In fact, the Gamecocks were the only team in the country to have freshmen lead the team in both rushing yards (Dowdle) and passing yards (Bentley).
"I think those days of thinking that freshmen can't be big contributors are over," Ellis said. "There are always exceptions, but we're getting better levels of coaching, and you're talking about elite players that were respected across the league. What I really liked is that this group of coaches really developed them. They got better as the year went on. They got better not only in what they did on the field, but also with their leadership and poise in many situations."
With improvement and experienced gained, there is an opportunity to use that as a springboard into the 2017 season.
"What that's done is give a perception increase of the program amongst prospects out there," Luginbill said. "What I mean by that is, it's different going into this recruiting cycle if you're 3-9 or 4-8, as opposed to being a bowl team. So I think that is a real positive. I think they know where their weaknesses are, and I believe they know how to play to their strengths."
"With those young guys coming back, I think that's where you're going to see your biggest jump next year," Ellis said. "Last year they had the athletic ability to get in the lineup, but not the experience. Now that they have the experience, they're going to improve and get coached up. I have no doubt that the Gamecock football team will be even better under Will Muschamp in year two because of those two things. That experience and the addition of some new weapons is going to help."
Check in to Gamecocksonline.com tomorrow for Part 2 where the experts discuss recruiting and what to expect in 2017.
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