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A more successful 2017? For South Carolina, it starts with these five things

January 7, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA — Members of South Carolina’s football team made two trips last year to Alabama’s largest city. The first was for SEC Media Days, where the Gamecocks were projected to finish last in the conference and heard players from opening-night opponent Vanderbilt speak confidently about expecting to win.

The second was last week, for a Birmingham Bowl appearance that back in midsummer seemed remote — until Elliott Fry kicked the Gamecocks past those same Commodores, and quarterback Jake Bentley led USC to four victories in its last six regular-season games. South Carolina doubled its win total and reached the postseason in its first campaign under Will Muschamp, which by any definition has to be considered a success.

And yet, it’s also clear the season could have been better. Five turnovers in the bowl game. A listless defensive first half in a winnable game at Mississippi State, a listless offensive four quarters in a winnable game at Kentucky. Self-inflicted problems in competitive contests against Georgia and Texas A&M. A defense that struggled toward the end of the season, an offense that was often predictable throughout.

In year one under a new coach, with a roster comprised of true freshmen and returnees from a 3-9 team, the Gamecocks could get away with all of that and still take a large degree of satisfaction in what they accomplished. The mood leaving Birmingham last week was hopeful, especially given that 67 percent of USC’s roster is made up of freshmen or sophomores.

And they will enter 2017 with answers to some questions that dogged them early this past season. USC has a starting quarterback in Bentley, a rising sophomore who passed for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns in seven starts. It has a starting running back in rising sophomore Rico Dowdle. It knows what receiver Deebo Samuel, who had a huge finish after missing much of the previous season and a half with hamstring problems, is capable of when healthy.

But for the first time under Muschamp, the Gamecocks will also face expectations, which weren’t present this past season. And to build off of this 6-7 season, a pleasant surprise that left USC fans optimistic for the future, South Carolina in year two under its head coach needs to start with these five things:

5. A completely new kicking unit

Special teams were the saving grace of the mess that was the 3-9 campaign of 2015, with Fry being his reliable self and punter Sean Kelly booming so many long ones fans often joked he ought to be team MVP. Fry had a nice senior season, converting 13 of 17 field goals including the game-winner at Vandy, but just about everything else on special teams was a mess.

Elliott Fry converted 13 of 17 field goal attempts this past season and finished as USC’s all-time leading scorer. (File/Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina)

Punt returns and kick coverage will be a work in progress as the Gamecocks search for better and faster athletes to place in those spots. But USC will also need an entirely new kicking unit, with Fry, punter/holder Kelly, and long snapper Drew Williams all departing. That group has been responsible for a lot of points, and fans have probably taken it a little for granted, and it might get a little nervous next season as newcomers slide into all three of those positions.

Fry has talked up freshman Alexander Woznick, who scored 60 points as a high school senior at Greenville’s Eastside, as his heir apparent. Freshman Michael Almond punted in the bowl game for Kelly, who kicked much of this past season with a sore leg. USC is also waiting on redshirt freshman Joseph Charlton, whom Steve Spurrier initially envisioned as his kickoff specialist in 2015, to develop.

USC has a handful of other long snappers on the roster, but Williams was so steady he owned the position and earned a scholarship in the process. This was a consistent group in an otherwise unpredictable unit, and the departure of the three seniors adds another special teams mystery Muschamp and coordinator Coleman Hutzler will have to solve.

4. Improved speed on defense and special teams

It was a theme Muschamp hit on again and again and again: the Gamecocks need to get faster. And it was clear why, as yet another opposing punt returner fielded a kick with 10 yards of open space all around him, or yet another opposing wide receiver wriggled free for a big gain.

Team speed is one of those areas where the recruiting shortfalls of the final few years under Spurrier remain most evident. Muschamp was occasionally able to use scheme to camouflage that fact defensively, but as the season went on and the Gamecocks were forced to use an extra man in the box to help stop the run, defensive backs were on their own. USC slipped from second in the SEC in pass defense to sixth as a result.

And the last few games were rough ones, as Clemson and South Florida both thrived in open space. While South Carolina did lead the SEC in average kickoff return yardage — an outlier of a statistic if there ever was one — the Gamecocks were last in kickoff coverage, and third-to-last in opponent punt return average. Expect speed to be a priority for USC not just in offseason conditioning, but also on National Signing Day.

Darius English’s nine sacks in 2016 were the most by a USC player since Kelcey Quarles recorded 9.5 in 2013. (File/Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina)

3. A more pronounced pass rush

Remember when Marquavius Lewis first arrived at South Carolina, and predicted double-digit sack totals? The defensive end finished his two-year USC career with 4.5, not exactly the impact most expected. And yet, Lewis still started every game the past two seasons, further evidence of how desperate the Gamecocks are for pass-rushers.

For all the progress the Gamecocks’ defense made in its first season under Muschamp, pass rush remains an Achilles’ heel dating back to the final two years under Spurrier. USC’s 21 sacks in 2016 tied for 11th in the SEC, and South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers so danced around the Gamecocks’ pass rush in the bowl game that Muschamp was left lobbying for pass-rushers to come to USC in his media session afterward.

And yet, USC’s sack total was still a meager improvement from the season before, and senior end Darius English tied for fifth in the league with nine sacks of his own — double his team-leading total from last season, and the most by one USC player since Kelcey Quarles had 9.5 in 2013. The Gamecocks just couldn’t sustain it, and allowed too many big plays late in the season because dual-threat quarterbacks were able to buy time with their legs.

With both starting defensive ends departing, expect freshman D.J. Wonnum to play more of a role in 2017, and redshirting defensive linemen Stephon Taylor to have an impact. Muschamp inked seven defensive linemen in his first signing class, and many of them will get an opportunity. And Shameik Blackshear of Bluffton, one of USC’s highest-rated signees in 2013, will have a year of conditioning behind him after his gunshot incident in late 2015.

2. Less predictability on offense

After a Birmingham Bowl in which Bentley threw for 390 yards and the Gamecocks set event records for yards of total offense, completions, first downs, and passing, receiving and all-purpose yards, it was natural to wonder — where did all of that come from?

USC receiver Deebo Samuel finished his sophomore season with 14 catches for 190 yards in the bowl game. (File/Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina)

For all the growing pains on defense, no part of Muschamp’s first season in Columbia was more maddening to watch than the Gamecocks’ often halting development on offense. No question, things improved greatly when Bentley stepped in behind center at midseason, but it still remained a unit that could get quite one-dimensional against elite competition, as late-season performances at Florida and Clemson will attest.

Having Bentley and Dowdle in the starting lineup for a full season will unquestionably make a difference. So will having a healthy Samuel and a more experienced Bryan Edwards. But offense remains the one aspect of Muschamp’s responsibility that USC fans are most nervous about, because they know what happened at Florida, and they saw too many instances in 2016 reminding them of that.

Muschamp and play-caller Kurt Roper were careful to not ask inexperienced players to do too much, leading at times to an attack that fans saw as predictable. With a more experienced lineup in 2017, it would seem natural that they’d expand the playbook in 2017, and by extension expand how much of the field the Gamecocks use. Birmingham may have offered a hint of that, even though USC took what the South Florida defense gave them.

The need for balance is understandable, especially with an explosive back like Dowdle, and a speedy backup like A.J. Turner behind him. But it was tough watching USC figure things out in 2016, when the Gamecocks too often seemed content to run everything in the middle of the field. Not every game in 2017 will be the Birmingham Bowl. But they can’t provoke flashbacks of Muschamp’s days at Florida, either.

Former Summerville High School star Zack Bailey started all 13 games for South Carolina at left guard in 2016. (Provided/USC Athletics)

1. Help for Zack Bailey on the offensive line

Of course, many of the trials South Carolina endured this past season on offense can also be boiled down to one thing: the Gamecocks’ offensive line, expected to be a rock, began eroding from the first minutes of the first game and never really recovered.

Was the high ankle sprain suffered in the opening quarter at Vanderbilt by Donell Stanley, the starting right guard who would miss the rest of the season, the first pulled thread that led to the unraveling? Suddenly positions were being switched to fill the gap, and the whole season turned into a reclamation effort on an offensive line that entering the year was widely viewed as one of USC’s greatest strengths.

The end result was 41 sacks allowed, last in the league and at least six more than any other team in the SEC, and a line that struggled to pick up even short yardage on the ground by the end of the season. Shawn Elliott took a lot of heat from fans, but USC’s former offensive line coach is now running the show at Georgia State, so it’s up to whomever Muschamp brings in next to try and right the ship.

USC’s next offensive line coach will have a cornerstone to work with: Summerville’s Zack Bailey, a future NFL player at left guard and one of the best pull-blockers in the conference. But the rising junior needs some help, beginning with a new left tackle given the departure of senior Mason Zandi, and including a right side of the line that needs to be better than it was this past season.

Stanley’s return should help. USC also redshirted its offensive linemen from last year’s signing class, and Muschamp raved about converted defensive lineman Sadarius Hutcherson in bowl camp. For Bentley and Dowdle to have a chance to realize all they’re capable of, this unit simply has to be much improved, beginning with an opener Sept. 2 in Charlotte against North Carolina State.