It’s official, we are right in the middle of what is known as “talking season”. While trying to think of what to write about the upcoming Gamecock football season, I’ve reached the conclusion that this will truly be a season of mystery. A new head coach, combined with unknowns at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Not to mention a new outlook on the defensive side of the ball.
2016 Gamecock Football is a Mystery
Coach Will Muschamp is now in charge in Columbia, and he will have no shortage of questions to answer when practice gets underway this week. First and foremost will be who is lining up under center for Gamecock football in 2016?
Senior Perry Orth may have the inside track to start at quarterback in Nashville on September 1st, seeing how he is the only quarterback in the mix with game experience. True freshmen Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley will both have their chances throughout the season as well. The youngsters are full of talent, but with back-to-back conference road games out the gate, expect Orth to begin the year as the starter. McIlwain did enroll early to participate in spring practice and was impressive in in the Spring Game.
Inept offense and erratic quarterback play plagued Coach Muschamp in his tenure at Florida. He knows the importance of getting stability and production from whomever emerges out of this trio. South Carolina will also lean on young unproven talent when it looks for playmakers to make the quarterback’s job easier.
Pharoh Cooper was a college football Swiss Army knife during his three seasons in Columbia. Not only was he an All-SEC wide receiver, but he also took direct snaps in the Wildcat formation, utilizing both his running and throwing ability. New offensive coordinator, Kurt Roper will have the unenviable task of finding players to replace Cooper’s multifaceted production.
Redshirt sophomore, Deebo Samuel missed most of his first year due to injury, but showed a lot of promise against rival Clemson in the last game. His five catch, 104-yard performance left a lasting impression on fans. Many believe he can be the next big-time pass catcher for the Gamecocks. It was only one game, so let’s hold off on lining him up behind Sidney Rice, Kenny McKinnley, Alshon Jeffrey, and Pharoh Cooper for now. He did produce his best moments in the biggest game, and will be counted on heavily this year.
Receiving Production Returning For Gamecock Football
Player – Rec – Yds – TDs
D Samuel – 12 – 161 – 1
M Belton – 11 – 121 – 0
H Hurst – 8 – 106 – 0
D Williams – 11 – 93 – 0
T Googer – 5 – 74 – 0
Aside from Samuel, even less is known about the other players who will be lining up with him at receiver this Fall. Bryan Edwards, a freshman from Conway, SC, enrolled in the Spring and will be counted on to have an immediate impact. He and McIlwain showed great chemistry in both this past spring and last summer’s camps for elite high school prospects. If the freshman from Pennsylvania does win the starting job under center, these two could create a great tandem for years to come. Tight end Hayden Hurst emerged as a potential playmaker last year as well. His size (6’5”, 250 lbs.) and agility make him a possible match-up problem for opponents.
The offensive line should be a stable part of Carolina’s team this season. The high likelihood of a youthful signal caller means that could be a major plus. Coach Shawn Elliott will have to replace two starters, but the interior spots on the line are manned by guys with playing time under their belts. Mammoth senior Mason Zandi will hold down the left tackle spot after starting at right tackle last season. Alan Knott and transfer Cory Helms have experience at both the center and guard positions. Sophomore Zack Bailey showed flashes last year when he filled in at guard, but may move to one of the tackle spots in ’16.
A young quarterback will look to lean on a strong running game until he gets comfortable controlling the offense. With a solid offensive line in front of him, it will be up to David Williams to carry the load at running back. The former 4-star recruit has not reached his potential and will need to be more consistent to lead the rushing attack. A group of unproven freshman will also figure into the mix in the backfield.
The personnel questions span up and down the roster. However, the biggest mystery might be, how bad was this team last year? Most preseason predictions have Gamecock football settled in the bottom two spots in the SEC East. When coming off a 3-9 record that included a loss to the Citadel, it’s not hard to justify those low expectations. In most people’s minds, it seems that the 1-point loss to the FCS Bulldogs stand outs from the 2015 season. This is also a team that gave Clemson all they could handle and was within one score at both Tennessee and Texas A&M. The gap from losing to winning may not be as large as last season’s failures indicate.
The mid-season turmoil from last year is now behind South Carolina. A new coaching staff with a new attitude are now in place so Gamecock football could surprise people this year. The first four games should unravel most of the mystery surrounding the team. Road trips to Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Kentucky sandwiched around a home game with East Carolina, will give them a small margin for error. The first month brings tough but winnable games. South Carolina will need to be ready to go from the start or things could go south very quickly in Coach Muschamp’s first season. It all starts in Nashville on September 1st, and it will be fascinating to see how these questions get answered.