March 9, 2016
After 11 seasons under the leadership of the Head Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, Will Muschamp has been handed the reins of the South Carolina football program. Coach Muschamp assembled an energetic staff that immediately hit the ground running in the recruiting circuit. Now, after the 91 players on campus spent an offseason in the weight room under the direction of new strength & conditioning coach Jeff Dillman, who worked to instill a renewed dedication to effort, toughness and discipline into the program, Coach Muschamp and his lieutenants will take the lead. They have 15 spring practices to evaluate the returning talent, install new schemes, identify playmakers and infuse the philosophies and principles that will define Gamecock Football for the foreseeable future.
Coach Muschamp knows that there is much work to be done. Despite being just two years removed from three-consecutive 11-win seasons, the Gamecocks are coming off a 3-9 year, Carolina’s worst record since a winless campaign in 1999. However, last year’s squad showed that it was competitive more often than not, posting a season-opening win over ACC runnerup North Carolina and dropping five contests by a combined total of 20 points.
The on-field coaching staff, save one, is new to Columbia. On the offensive side of the ball, only offensive line coach Shawn Elliott is a holdover from Coach Spurrier’s staff. Kurt Roper was named the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and will have the responsibility for calling the plays. Bryan McClendon, who served as Georgia’s interim head coach in its 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl win over Penn State, also holds the co-offensive coordinator title and will mentor the wide receivers. Bobby Bentley, one of the most successful high school coaches in South Carolina history, returns to the Palmetto State as the running backs coach. Veteran SEC assistant coach Pat Washington, an Auburn grad who has logged stints at Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Kentucky, will coach the tight ends.
Coach Muschamp has earned his stripes on the defensive side of the ball and will have tremendous input on the schemes and packages the Gamecocks will employ. Travaris Robinson will serve as the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Lance Thompson was named the assistant coach - defense and will mentor the defensive line. Fourteen-year NFL veteran Mike Peterson will be in charge of the outside linebackers, while Coleman Hutzler will coach the linebackers and will serve as the special teams coordinator.
The new staff will have 44 returning lettermen to work with, including 12 starters - four on offense, six on defense and two specialists. Key losses from last year’s squad include wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, tight end Jerell Adams, left tackle Brandon Shell, tailback Brandon Wilds and safety Isaiah Johnson. As is always the case in the nation’s top conference, the road to Atlanta and the Georgia Dome for the SEC Championship game will be challenging. The Gamecocks’ schedule is quirky, with three conference road games on the docket before the first conference home contest is played.
As has become somewhat of a tradition, Carolina will kick off the college football season on a Thursday night, this year drawing a contest at Vanderbilt. A second road conference game awaits the following week in Starkville against Mississippi State. The 2016 home opener is set for Sept. 17 against East Carolina, which will also be Parents’ Weekend, but then another road conference game is in store for the Gamecocks, this time at Kentucky to wrap up the season’s first month.
After traveling for three of the first four games, Columbia’s Williams-Brice Stadium will host five consecutive games, including four conference tests, over a six-week period. Texas A&M and Georgia get things started in October before the season’s only bye week. UMass makes its first appearance in Columbia on Oct. 22 before the Gamecocks host two more SEC Eastern Division rivals in Tennessee and Missouri. The Missouri game has been identified as this year’s annual Homecoming game.
Two of the final three contests will be on the road, including a date at Florida to wrap up the conference slate, along with the annual Palmetto State showdown at Clemson on Nov. 26 in the regular season finale. In between is the final home game and Senior Day on Nov. 19 with Western Carolina providing the competition.
Spring drills get underway on Tuesday, March 15, when the Gamecocks hit the practice fields for the first time under Coach Muschamp and company. The spring culminates with the annual Garnet & Black Spring Game, which is set for Saturday, April 9, at Williams-Brice Stadium, beginning at noon. The game will be televised on either the SEC Network or on ESPNU.
The Carolina offense returns four starters from a squad that averaged just under 22 points a game, or 11 fewer than in the previous season. The Gamecocks return 48 percent of their rushing yards, 99 percent of their passing yards and 27 percent of their receiving yards from a unit that ranked 99th in the country in total offense a year ago. The returning starters are quarterback Perry Orth, wide receiver Matrick Belton, and offensive linemen Alan Knott and Mason Zandi. The biggest question marks entering the spring come at the skill positions, most notably, quarterback and wide receiver. The Gamecock coaching staff hit the recruiting trail hard in search of more difference-makers, but many of them will not get to campus until the summer. The spring will be a time to implement Kurt Roper’s offensive schemes and determine which quarterback is best suited to run the attack when the Gamecocks travel to Vanderbilt to open up the 2016 regular season on Sept. 1.
The Gamecocks will look to shore up a defense that has registered back-to-back subpar seasons. However, six starters return, led by second-team All-SEC linebacker Skai Moore. Moore has led the team in tackles in each of the past three seasons and has a chance to become the school’s all-time leader in career interceptions. Other returning starters include defensive linemen Marquavius Lewis and Taylor Stallworth, linebacker T.J. Holloman and cornerback Rico McWilliams. In addition, Jordan Diggs is a returning starter who played safety last season, but is being looked at as a linebacker in his final campaign. Overall, seven of the team’s top 10 tacklers return from a year ago.
New special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler is blessed to have arguably the best returning placekicker/punter tandem in the SEC in seniors Elliott Fry and Sean Kelly. Fry continues in his quest to shatter nearly every placekicking record in school history and has his eyes set on becoming the all-time leading scorer in South Carolina Football history. Kelly, a former transfer from FAU, was outstanding in his first season in the Garnet & Black, helping the Gamecocks rank second in the SEC and seventh in the nation in net punting yards (41.3). Senior Drew Williams returns as the incumbent to handle the deep snapping duties for a third-straight season. As is usually the case in the spring, the Gamecocks will take a look at several candidates to handle kickoff and punt returns. Sophomore Rashad Fenton is certainly a candidate for kick return duty, as he averaged over 26 yards per return last season, and took one to the house at LSU. The sure hands of Pharoh Cooper on punt returns will be missed.
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