Gamecocks Begin Spring Drills Saturday|
Year 2 of the Will Muschamp Era in South Carolina Football gets underway in earnest when the Gamecocks hit the practice fields to begin spring drills on Saturday, Feb. 25. Carolina will have 15 days of practice, culminating with the annual Garnet & Black Spring Game on Saturday, April 1, to continue the building process that begin last year when the Gamecocks improved their win total by three over the 2015 campaign and earned a spot in a bowl game.
With just a taste of success, the Gamecocks enter 2017 hungry for more.
Carolina begins its spring drills in a much better position than they were a year ago when transition was the recurring theme. The staff remains nearly intact, while the players have a better understanding of the effort, toughness and discipline that Coach Muschamp and his assistants demand each and every day. Another offseason in the weight room with strength & conditioning coach Jeff Dillman should also begin to reap benefits.
The on-field coaching staff has just one new face, and that is a familiar one in Columbia. Offensive line coach Eric Wolford returns to South Carolina, replacing Shawn Elliott, the only holdover from the Steve Spurrier Era, who was named the head coach at Georgia State. Wolford coached the Gamecocks’ offensive line in 2009 under Coach Spurrier, but left after one season to assume the head coaching position at Youngstown State. Most recently, he has worked in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers.
Forty-three letterwinners, including 16 starters, 10 on the offensive side of the ball and six on defense, return to the start of spring drills. In addition, the Gamecocks welcome the return of All-SEC senior linebacker Skai Moore, who sat out 2016 with a neck injury, but led the team in tackles in each of the three previous seasons, and add sophomore running back Ty’Son Williams, who redshirted last season after transferring from North Carolina.
Key losses from last year’s squad include left tackle Mason Zandi, defensive ends Darius English and Marquavius Lewis, and linebackers T.J. Holloman and Jonathan Walton, along with record-setting placekicker Elliott Fry and punter Sean Kelly.
With the SEC Eastern Division looking to be a wide open race again this year, a solid, injury-free spring would push the Gamecocks into the conversation for teams bidding to represent the East in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. However, another challenging schedule awaits, including a slate that includes the eighth-toughest non-conference schedule in the country, according to one national pundit.
The Gamecocks open the 2017 schedule with a challenging non-conference neutral site game, as they will take on NC State in the Belk College Kickoff Game in Charlotte on Saturday, Sept. 2.
The SEC opener comes in week 2 when the Gamecocks travel to Columbia, Mo. to face the Mizzou Tigers. Carolina’s seven-game home slate gets underway the following week when the Gamecocks host Kentucky in a second-straight SEC Eastern Division matchup.
Hall of Fame Weekend will be punctuated when the Gamecocks host Louisiana Tech in a non-conference matchup on Sept. 23. It will be the first contest between the two schools since 1995. The Bulldogs are led by former South Carolina assistant coach Skip Holtz.
The Gamecocks next two contests will be against their cross-division opponents from the SEC West. Carolina will travel to College Station to face Texas A&M to close out the month of September, then host Arkansas on Oct. 7 for the annual Parents’ Weekend clash.
South Carolina’s next four games are all against SEC Eastern Division foes, beginning with an Oct. 14 date in Knoxville against the Tennessee Volunteers. After the season’s lone off weekend, Carolina will host Vanderbilt on Oct. 28 as the school celebrates Homecoming, travel to Athens for a rare late-season showdown with the Bulldogs, then wrap up the conference slate on Nov. 11 with a home tilt against Florida.
The regular season concludes with a pair of home non-conference games against in-state opponents. Wofford comes to Columbia on Nov. 18, then South Carolina and Clemson will renew its Palmetto State rivalry at Williams-Brice Stadium on Nov. 25.
Unlike a year ago where questions abounded at nearly every spot, especially at the skill positions, the Gamecocks enter 2017 with 10 returning starters on the offensive side of the ball. That situation should allow offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to open up the attack a little more to utilize an array of weapons. The Gamecocks return 84 percent of their rushing yards, 75 percent of their passing yards and 97 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago. The top returning rushers are Rico Dowdle (764 yards) and A.J. Turner (497). Jake Bentley (1,420 yards) and Brandon McIlwain (600) are the top returning passers, while Deebo Samuel 59 catches, 783 yards), Hayden Hurst (48 for 616) and Bryan Edwards (44 for 590) are the top three returning receivers. The key figure in this mix is Bentley. The sophomore signal-caller, who had not even stepped foot on the Columbia campus at this time a year ago, will be going through his first spring session after being pressed into duty midway through the 2016 campaign. The Carolina offense was hampered early in the fall by injuries to Samuel and Dowdle, but now appear to have more depth at both the wide receiver and running back positions to better withstand those types of debilitating losses this fall. Ty’Son Williams, who becomes eligible after transferring from North Carolina, could make an immediate impact. Offensive lineman Zack Bailey is an all-conference candidate up front.
Coach Muschamp, who has made his name on the defensive side of the ball, along with defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson, will be tasked with getting a solid, more consistent defense on the field each week. The offseason was spent looking to improve the team’s speed, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They will need to find pass rushers on the defensive line to replace the nine-sack season that Darius English turned in, and have some depth issues at linebacker to address, although the return of Skai Moore could prove to be as important as any addition in the league. The secondary should be an area that is greatly improved, but the key in the spring will be getting the right players in the right positions.
Special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler will be challenged to replace two consistent performers in placekicker Elliott Fry, the school’s all-time leader in points scored, and punter Sean Kelly. Nearly as important is finding a replacement for deep snapper Drew Williams, who earned fourth-team All-America honors last season. Alexander Woznick will most likely get the first look at the placekicking duties, while Michael Almond and Joseph Charlton figure to battle it out to become the everyday punter. As is usually the case in the spring, the Gamecocks will take a look at several candidates to handle kickoff and punt returns. Deebo Samuel, A.J. Turner and Rashad Fenton all had kickoff returns of at least 50 yards in 2016 as the unit led the SEC and finished eighth in the country in return average, while, after giving several players a look, Chris Lammons proved to be a quality punt returner late in the season.