Legendary college football coach Duffy Daugherty used to say, “Football isn’t a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.“ The physicality and aggression needed to be successful is inherent. As they look to elevate the program, the South Carolina Gamecocks’ toughness will be a key moving forward into the 2019 season. They will face one of the most difficult schedules in the country next season. Their ability to improve both their physical and mental toughness is paramount if Coach Will Muschamp is to get his program back among those contending in the SEC.
Gamecocks’ Toughness Key In 2019
Physicality has been an issue on both sides of the ball the past few seasons. The inability for both the defense to stop the run game, and the offense to impose their will by rushing the ball have been glaring. Over the past three seasons, South Carolina is being out-rushed by 44-yards per game on average. They had nine-and-half less rushing attempts per game in 2018, and seven fewer total plays than their opponents.
The blame lies on both sides of the ball. Far too often the defenders in garnet and black have struggled to bring down ball carriers on first contact. On offense, the tailbacks have not been proficient at breaking tackles and finishing runs strongly. This leads to drives stalling too often when the South Carolina fails to convert short yardage situations. On the defensive side, the extra yards allowed leads to opponents extending more drives. This accounts for the difference in plays run, and eventually takes its toll on a team that has struggled often with a thin roster.
The Gamecocks’ toughness must improve if these trends are to be bucked in the coming season. Physicality at both linebacker and tailback are areas that South Carolina has been lacking in lately. Those hidden yards after contact can often be the difference, and its a battle the Gamecocks can no longer afford to lose.
Young No Longer
For his first few years in Columbia, Muschamp hasn’t been playing with a full deck on the field. The shape of the roster from a talent and depth standpoint was dire four years ago, and he has been building things from the bottom up ever since he arrived. Freshman and sophomores have dominated the two-deep on both sides of the ball in each of his three seasons here. That will not be the case in 2019. Questions about the Gamecocks’ toughness could be chalked up to youth, inexperience, and lack of physical development before. That will not be the case this fall. There will be third and fourth year players up and down the roster.
At times towards the end of last year, South Carolina had up to seven true freshman on defense. Injuries hit that side of the ball particularly hard. All that experience those younger players got from being thrown into the fire should benefit them moving forward. With seniors at quarterback, tailback, receiver, along the offensive, and defensive lines, youth is no longer an excuse. The accelerated learning curve of the youngsters forced in to action last season, combined with the abundance of returning experience, means the future is present. Potential is in the past, production is needed now.
Searching for Consistency
As much as physicality is needed to succeed on the field, a team’s mental fortitude is often just as important. Last season, this team was plagued by its inconsistencies. The same unit that racked up over 500 yards of offense on Clemson and Ole Miss, looked lost and inept in losses to Georgia and Kentucky. After playing well towards the end of the season, they then laid an egg in the bowl game, failing to scoring against a mediocre Virginia team. After that performance, the Gamecocks’ toughness will be rightfully called into question until they take the field again. That needs to fuel this team as they put in the work during the off-season.
Quarterback Jake Bentley gets the brunt of the criticism, and his inconsistency certainly warranted its fair share of blame. However, this is a team wide problem. The run game never showed it could be relied upon. All of the tailbacks had good moments, but none of them could ever step forward to carry the load. Flashes of production aside, when tough yards were needed, they didn’t produce often enough.
The receiving core had its own moments of brilliance. Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards, and Shi Smith all proved capable of highlight reel plays and big games. Unfortunately there were times where holding on to the ball seemed foreign to them. South Carolina’s skill players had way too many drops a season ago. To truly elevate to being a contender, the Gamecocks must show they can sustain a high level of play. Far too often last season, they were not able to do that.
Building Brick by Brick
Building this program to reach up to a higher standard was never going to be a quick process. The positive strides on the recruiting trail have been paying dividends in the last two classes. The depth and talent level is growing in Columbia. The competition that is brought on through roster depth is a key component to the consistency needed to succeed. If there is pressure to perform each day to hold on to you position, then the focus level of all the players will increase. It is no longer; “you have to perform, you’re all we have.’ Now Muschamp has more options, if a player doesn’t perform on a consistent basis, those opportunities will go to someone else.
This is no longer a young team looking to build. South Carolina will have a veteran group in 2019. In order to take a step forward against a daunting schedule, the Gamecocks toughness of mind and body will be pushed to its limits. How they respond will show just how much they have grown.