We had every intention of recording a preseason podcast last night. But due to my lingering extreme tiredness after spending most of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning vomiting my guts up in a Washington, D.C. hotel room, I decided to sleep instead. (You ever been alone and sick in a hotel room 700 miles from home? It is the WORST man. You revert to being a 3-year-old whimpering and crying for mommy to make it all better.) Anyhoo, instead of a podcast here’s a pseudo preview of tomorrow afternoon’s opener against NC State.
Saturday? What is this voodoo about us kicking off our first game on a Saturday anyway? If you wanted one final sign that the Spurrier era is officially over, this is it. The HBC loved being the “first game” of the season and all the attention that came with the Thursday night slot. In Spurrier’s 11 years at the helm we opened on Thursday night nine times.
Will Muschamp? I’m not sure he gives two rips about when the first game is played. I would expect to see us opening on the first Saturday most years from here on out. Either way, we know we’ll either be 1-0 or 0-1 come Sunday morning.
One year ago today. 365 days ago we were opening on the road at Vanderbilt (on a Thursday) with a new head coach and full of piss and vinegar. Based on strong spring game performance (which was basically a game of two-hand touch) we believed it was just a matter of time before Brandon McIlwain took over the starting quarterback job and held onto it for a very long time. We had yet to be introduced to a bevvy of newcomers, including Brian Edwards and DJ Wonnum. It would be several weeks before we were introduced to critical offensive pieces Rico Dowdle and Jake Bentley. And we were hoping against hope that Will Muschamp knew what the hell he was doing after a high-profile faceplant at Florida.
Muschamp has done a fantastic job of transforming the roster over the last 20 months, adding talent and a little depth. The verdict is still out, and the jury will be deliberating a while, but we are definitely in a better position today that we were last year in Nashville.
What we’re excited about:
Jake Bentley. It’s hard to not be excited about a kid with his poise and talent WHO SHOULD STILL BE IN HIGH SCHOOL…oh wait, never mind, that was last year. I dare say that after seven whole college football games, Bentley might be the most NFL-ready quarterback we’ve ever had at South Carolina. No, I don’t mean he’s ready to jump to The League today, but he has the measurables and intangibles that NFL scouts are looking for – size, arm strength, feel for the game, work ethic, and so on. The old saying goes you improve the most between your freshman and sophomore years, and if that’s the case we are all justified in expecting big things from number 19.
Weapons. Bentley has a ton of weapons to work with on the offensive side of the ball. Dowdle and AJ Turner are proven commodities in the backfield, and they’ll be joined by North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams, a guy who many believe is the best of the bunch. Much has also been written about our veteran trio of pass catchers, Edwards, Deebo Samuel and Hayden Hurst. These six guys combined have all the skills needed to make something happen with the ball in their hands – power, elusiveness and speed. The only problem? There’s only one ball.
Freshmen – Offense. Even with six guys we know will get touches practically every game, the brothers Smith, OrTre and Shi (I know, they’re not really brothers) have created a lot of buzz in camp. OrTre is a big-bodied receiver who recovered from a broken foot his senior year of high school to participate in Spring practice and make an impression on the coaches. I’m hesitant to compare him to Alshon Jeffery before he ever takes a snap but…oh hell it’s still preseason and I’m not hesitant HE’S THE NEXT ALSHON JEFFERY.
Even though he was a heavily sought-after four-star recruit, Shi has been a bit of a surprise this fall. Muschamp announced him as a starter in a three-receiver set, so he has obviously shown some playmaking ability at practice. I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll try to get him the ball in space a couple of times on Saturday.
Skai. Welcome back number 10.
Other Linebackers – Any of Them. Skai and Bryson Allen-Williams are the dependable anchors of the defense. T.J. Brunson will be the other starter. I’m excited about the freshmen and newcomers we have at the position, but one or more will need to step up to spell the starters and to also give us some experience for the coming years. Davonne Bowen, Sherrod Greene, Eldridge Thompson, Damani Staley – I don’t care who steps up, but somebody has to.
Newcomers/Freshmen – Defense. Javon Kinlaw is a mountain in the middle and will help plug some of those big holes opposing running backs exploited last year. Aaron Sterling and Brad Johnson will hopefully give a shot of energy to what was an anemic pass rush. Keisean Nixon is the type of physical presence we need at the back of the defense.
But the guy on D to watch for is our very own Honey Badger, Jamyest Williams. He brings an attitude and competitiveness to the defense that we haven’t seen since DJ Swearinger. He is relatively small, but is extremely athletic and uses his hips and balance to allow him to match up with just about any receiver. Williams is the kind of guy that forces quarterbacks to make perfect throws.
What we’re concerned about:
The O Line. For our offense to have any success at all we need Jake Bentley to be upright and healthy. He was mostly healthy last year, but he was not upright nearly as much as we would’ve liked. Zack Bailey is a future starter in the NFL, but the rest of the line has a lot to prove. They’ll need to create holes for our backs, which will in turn create time for our quarterback, which will in turn allow Kurt Roper to mix it up with the playbook. The fierce NC State defensive line will be a good litmus test for this group.
The defensive backfield. We have veteran starters in corner Jamarcus King (who we hope has gotten stronger) and safety Chris Lammons (who we hope has learned to not throw punches at guys wearing helmets). There has been a lot of talk about Rashad Fenton possibly becoming the best corner on the team, and D.J. Smith is solid if not spectacular at the other safety position. Williams is a welcome addition at the nickel, but then the depth starts to fall off quite a bit. Jaylin Dickerson and Chris Smith are Freshmen who will miss the season due to injury, and Tavyn Jackson and Stephen Montac have battled injuries are expected to miss time. We cannot afford any more injuries in the back of the D.
Special teams. Lammons will be returning punts, which is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is he has shown flashes of being pretty good at it. The bad news is that’s 4-6 more opportunities for him to get dinged up and take him away from his primary role, as noted above. Kickoff returns I expect to be average to above average, but the kicking game is a hand-wringer at the moment. We still haven’t decided on a field goal kicker to replace Elliott Fry, and will also be trotting out a new punter.
Injuries. They have already taken a toll on our defensive backfield. There are a few positions like running back and defensive line where we could probably take a hit, but for the most part we need our starting 22 to stay as healthy as possible. One place where we cannot, and I mean CANNOT, have an injury is at quarterback. If Bentley goes down for any extended period of time we are blanking blanked.
The ‘Pack. NC State is a middling ACC team, much in the way South Carolina has returned to being a middling SEC team. Unfortunately, tomorrow we’ll be catching one of the better Wolfpack teams in recent memory. As previously stated, they have an outstanding defensive line, but could be vulnerable in the back seven if Bentley gets time to throw. On offense, quarterback Ryan Finley is somewhere on the “meh” spectrum, but has excellent weapons on the outside in Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hynes. The ‘Pack will also be replacing their excellent tailback from last year, Matthew Dayes.
The Prediction. The final score will be 27-24. I don’t know who’s going to win, that’s why they play the game. But I expect an ultra-competitive, fun football game from the start.
The Season. Funny thing about football, sometimes you can have more talent and a better team, but not gain any ground record-wise over your previous team. I really like the talent on this Gamecock squad. But there is a lot of youth and too many question marks to think we’ll improve very much on our 6-6 regular season from last year, especially with the out of conference schedule as tough as it’s been in quite a while. My head says 6-6, but my heart says 7-5 and maybe a Belk Bowl appearance.
The great thing about today is 15-0 is still a possibility, and by God that’s exciting. Football is here my friends, we look forward to the ride with you.