COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA) – For South Carolina Football preparation for the 2020 season has been unlike any other. Limited practices, an SEC-only schedule, and procedural changes are all adjustments that the program has had to factor in. Following a 4-8 season, we take a look at how this year’s team stacks up ahead of the new campaign.
Beginning with the offense, and the most crucial position, quarterback Ryan Hilinski returns for his sophomore season after an up-and-down, injury-riddled 2019. He’ll be competing with graduate transfer Collin Hill, a former Dorman Cavalier who has familiarity with new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s scheme from their time together at Colorado State.
“[I] got a call from coach Bobo and coach Muschamp with an opportunity to come back home, and I was super excited. They asked if I wanted to come in for a visit, if I wanted to see anything, and I’m like ‘no, I’m good,’ Hill said with a chuckle. “As long as the offense, we’re doing similar stuff [then] I’m ready to come back home.”
“[It’s] a new offense [that] requires a lot of footwork to be improved upon and I’m improving everyday,” said Hilinski. “I feel really good, legs feel good. My mind is racing and it feels really good to understand the playbook, it’s coming along. But mentally and physically I feel really good.”
Only three assistants return in their same roles, which is just one example of how different the makeup of the 2020 Gamecocks will be. They lose three of their top four receivers, including Bryan Edwards as well as all three of their leading running backs, namely Tavien Feaster and Rico Dowdle. With promising freshman Marshawn Lloyd out for the season due a torn ACL he suffered in fall camp, that leaves a likely combination of Kevin Harris and Deshaun Fenwick to carry the load. Senior receiver from Union County H.S. Shi Smith enters as a top target, among other wideouts Xavier Leggette, Josh Vann, Ortre Smith, and Dakereon Joyner. Junior transfer from Wingate Jalen Brooks has made an early impression at camp and could be an impact through the air as well. Transfer Adam Prentice adds a versatile option among the tight ends that includes senior Nick Muse, and tackle Dylan Wonnum highlights the returners on the offensive line.
“We’re pretty comfortable with the offense,” said Smith. “I mean you’re going to have mistakes from everybody, but like I mean we just go out there and play fast. Everybody is going to make mistakes and we just get it cleaned up.”
“I like all these guys on our football team,” said Bobo. “They’re good guys, they’re working extremely hard. But when it comes down to it, it’s going to be about production. Can you produce? Can you produce in practice? If you produce in practice then you’re going to have an opportunity to get the ball in the game.”
“I think we’ve made the right changes,” said Muschamp. “I’m excited about Mike. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mike. I think Mike’s experience [and] I think his success that he’s had offensively brings a lot of confidence to our players, offensively. And we needed that.”
South Carolina struggled on offense in 2019, scoring just over 22 points per game. They converted only 59 of 184 third down attempts, ranking in the bottom ten in the FBS, and their red zone scoring percentage tied them for 105th out of 130 in the country. A combination of Bobo’s new offense, and expected improvement at the QB position, could help them reverse that trend.
Looking ahead to the defense. The secondary figures to be their strength with junior corners Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu coming back, along with safety R.J. Roderick. Last year’s leading tackler Ernest Jones returns to anchor the linebacker corps. And while the team lost defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, there’s plenty of talent returning to the unit in Keir Thomas, five star recruits Zacch Pickens, former T.L. Hanna star, and Jordan Burch, as well as Aaron Sterling, who led the team with six sacks in 2019.
“Me and Izzy [Mukuamu], we feel like we’re two of the best DB’s in the nation, so just to have the opportunity to come out in this prestigious school, with the DB’s that they had in the past, it’s just a blessing to be a part of it,” said Horn.
“We want to be the best in the country, so we just hold each other accountable,” Mukuamu added. “If I’m down on day he’s going to pick me up, and if he’s down one day I’m going to pick him up.”
“I think we can put those guys in some different places that we can add a little more pressure than we had,” Robinson said of the two corners. “Those guys are a little more experienced. They were talented last year, but they weren’t as experienced. And these guys are seasoned vets and we’re going to need them to play well.”
In 2019 the defense ranked just inside the top half in the country, allowing a 38 percent third down conversion while ranking 59th in defensive pass efficiency, which takes opponents yards, completion percentage, and turnovers into account. Their red zone defense was above average, and their 17 takeaways contributed to a plus three turnover margin on the season, although it was far from their 28 takeaways in 2017. With Travaris Robinson returning to call the defense and newcomers to the staff Tracy Rocker and Rod Wilson, the Gamecocks are hoping to build on what should be a strong unit in 2020.
On special teams the program loses standout punter Joseph Charlton, who’s nearly 42 net punt yards ranked tenth in college football. But Smith and Leggette could be in line for expanded roles in the return game, a unit that ranked 16th in the FBS. Parker White comes back as the team’s kicker after a successful season where he converted every one of his extra points and made 18 of 22 field goal attempts, including a long of 50 yards.
“Going into my senior year I’m really ready for the challenges of this season,” said White. “And I think I’ve improved from year to year, especially from furthers distances. So I’m kind of excited to see what this season has in store.”
After playing one of the most difficult schedules in the country last season, the Gamecocks draw another tough slate in 2020. Four of their opponents ranked inside the top 15 at the end of 2019, two were in the top five. And they’ll be going up against some of the best defenses in college football, an early test for the USC offense. It all starts on September 26th when they host Tennessee at Williams-Brice Stadium.