“While I breathe, I hope.” – Theocritus, or Cicero, or Steve Spurrier (depending on who you ask)
Man, so many people are seriously bullish on the 2018 Gamecock offense. I guess there are reasons – the return of Deebo Samuel, a veteran, battle-tested QB, a solid OL, a new fast-paced offense, and an offensive coordinator not named Kurt Roper. But I’m hesitant to jump on the bandwagon just yet for an offense that finished 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC last year in yards per game, rushing yards and points per game.
I’m by nature optimistic, but if I have two words for the Gamecock offense it’s these:
Position by position, here’s why I’m optimistic, and at the same time very nervous, about the offense:
Quarterback. Jake Bentley enters his third season as starter with quite a bit left to prove. The way he played as a freshman gave us all great optimism that we were going to have an all-SEC guy under center for two more years, and then he’d probably bolt to the league. But he didn’t particularly show a lot of improvement from his freshman to sophomore years, regressing in QB rating, TD to INT ratio and completion percentage.
To become the team we want to be, Bentley is going to have to temper his emotions, particularly early in games, and be a more consistent with the intermediate and deep ball. A great example is the first series of the Missouri game last year when he badly overthrew Hayden Hurst twice on balls that would’ve been touchdowns. Sure, we went on to win that game going away, but an early touchdown would’ve decreased my beer consumption by at least three.
I’m not down on Jake Bentley by any stretch, but for this team to be exceed expectations, he is going to have to be something he has not been thus far in his career – special.
Behind Bentley is a trio of players who have combined to throw exactly one college pass – Michael Scarnecchia, Jay Urich and Dakereon Joyner. It’s hard to envision any of these guys getting any significant playing time barring injury, although Joyner may be the most likely candidate to be thrown in as a change of pace/run package kind of guy.
Running back. This position has been an enigma for the last couple of years. On paper this seems like an area of strength for the ‘Cocks, but in reality none of the guys on our roster have taken advantage of their opportunity to become “the guy”. I’ve seen a lot of people on Twitter getting upset when our running back group isn’t mentioned among the best in the SEC, but in reality, what have they accomplished individually or as a group to earn that kind of publicity?
Rico Dowdle might be the most talented of the group, but has battled nagging injuries that have prevented him from reaching his full potential. After an encouraging freshman season where he rushed for 764 yards on 5.7 ypc, those numbers dropped to 251 yards on 3.8 ypc. Ty’Son Williams was the victim of some odd coaching decisions last season and probably didn’t get as many carries as he should have, but still averaged 5.0 ypc and ran for 471 yards. I would bet on one of those two guys becoming the “bell cow” that Will Muschamp is looking for.
AJ Turner is personally one of my favorite Gamecocks, and led the team in rushing last year. He has been a dependable performer in his two years in the garnet and black, but it’s obvious the coaching staff doesn’t view him as the guy to carry the primary load.
Mon Denson had his moments last year and has a fantastic attitude, but I’d be surprised to see him get more than a few spot carries. Waiting in the wings will be freshmen Deshaun Fenwick and Lavonte Valentine.
Wide Receiver. I ran into Gamecock running backs coach Bobby Bentley at the airport a couple of months ago and without prompting there was one guy he mentioned above all others – Deebo Samuel.
“To have a successful season we need him healthy,” Bentley said.
And who am I to argue. In the first two-plus games of last season Deebo might’ve been the most valuable player in the country, scoring six touchdowns on catches, runs and returns. A healthy number 1 for 12+ games might result in an all-time season for a Gamecock receiver.
On the other side you have Bryan Edwards, who is quietly moving up the receiving record books at South Carolina. He might be the most under appreciated player on the roster right now. He needs to cut down on the drops, but it’s hard to not be excited about he and Deebo back on the field together.
When you team them up with the electric Shi Smith and the Alshon-like OrTre Smith, Jake Bentley has no shortage of targets on the outside.
After the top four there are plenty of guys who can catch the ball, but it’s going to be hard for any of them to get a significant number of targets. It probably won’t happen this year, but look for freshman Josh Vann to be a breakout star at some point.
Tight end. This position obviously took a hit with the departure of first round draft pick Hayden Hurst, but there are plenty of bodies to try and fill his shoes. Jacob August, KC Crosby, Evan Hinson, Kyle Markway and Kiel Pollard will battle for time. I would expect to see August (blocker) and Crosby (pass catcher) get most of the early reps as veterans who have seen a lot of playing time. Hinson and Pollard are intriguing prospects, however.
Hinson is an outstanding athlete and might have the highest ceiling of all the tight ends. But the most intriguing to me is Pollard. I watched him several times in high school when he played wide receiver, and he was the proverbial man against boys. I think he’s been frustrated a little having to wait his turn, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him rise to the top of the pack by mid-year.
Offensive Line. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about this offensive line you don’t already know. Zack Bailey is a masher and moves back to his natural guard position. Sadarius Hutcherson at the other guard spot has gotten rave reviews. Dennis Daley and Blake Camper will man the tackle spots and have had their ups and downs, and Donell Stanley will take over at center.
Depth is always critical on the offensive line, and there’s a lot of inexperience behind those guys. If the offense goes from running 60 plays per game to 90 plays per game like the staff wants, we’ll need plenty of big bodies.
The thing is, usually when we think we have a great offensive line they underachieve, and when we think we’re going to stink on the OL they play pretty well. So in the immortal words of Cousin Eddie Johnson, “I don’t know.”
How’s that for analysis.
Offensive coordinator. I’ll say this about Bryan McClendon, I’m thrilled for him. I love the guy, think he’s worked hard and deserves this opportunity, and is a fantastic recruiter and representative for USC. I am also pretty excited about having a faster paced offense.
That said, I think it was a risky choice for Will Muschamp to tap someone with four quarters of coordinator experience to bring him out of his career-long offensive funk. McClendon did a nice job in the Outback Bowl after a slow start, but only time will tell if he is the man for the job.
The bottom line. I truly believe this offense will be the best of the Muschamp era, but it’s only year three and the bar is very low. There is a lot of potential, and on paper I can understand why there is excitement. But there is simply no history of sustained offensive success with these guys to guarantee we’ll take a significant step forward.
At the same time, there are plenty of examples of veteran teams that “put it all together” and greatly exceed their past accomplishments. If the potential we see on paper translates to the field the way we hope it will, this season could be a great one.
While I breathe, I hope.