From the offense to the kicking game, five questions facing USC as it opens spring practice
COLUMBIA — South Carolina opens its second spring football practice under Will Muschamp on Saturday, and spirits are high after a run to a bowl game in the head coach’s first season and the signing of a consensus top-20 class in his first full recruiting cycle.
Muschamp’s first task has been to upgrade the talent level at USC, which in latter years under former head coach Steve Spurrier had dipped to the point where the Gamecocks featured eight current or former walk-ons on their two-deep. Last year’s on-field results were great for fans, but they were probably secondary to breaking in a crop of players who will form the nucleus of this program for more years to come.
Indeed, it’s a very different feel around Columbia than it was a year ago. The Gamecocks enter spring not on the heels of 3-8 campaign, but a 6-6 regular season and a bowl appearance. There’s no question at quarterback with Jake Bentley around, and newcomers promise to bolster other skill positions on offense. USC said goodbye to a handful of productive seniors, but none so valuable they can’t be replaced.
No question, there’s a greater sense of stability. On paper, there is more talent. But there are still questions surrounding an emerging Gamecocks program that let some winnable games slip away last season — yes, we’re looking at you, Kentucky — and here are five USC faces as it begins spring practice, which will conclude with the spring game on April 1:
1. Will Muschamp and Kurt Roper open up the offense?
Using three different starting quarterbacks last season, South Carolina often looked like three different teams. But there was still a great deal of conservatism on offense as Muschamp and play-caller Roper kept things relatively straightforward knowing they were relying on a lot of young players to move the ball.
Now the key players from last season are a year older, and Roper should be in position to utilize more of the playbook, and by extension, more of the field. Not every game is going to be like the Birmingham Bowl, where Bentley threw for 390 yards against a porous secondary. But you’d hope that game offered a hint of what this unit is capable of in 2017.
While Muschamp will tell you he doesn’t call plays, his influence on this offense is significant given his demand for balance. Balance is fine; predictability is not, and too often last year USC fell into the latter category. This will be Bentley’s first spring practice, hard as that is to believe, and by the end of it USC should be comfortable placing its offense in its quarterback’s hands.
2. Is Skai Moore back to his old self?
South Carolina’s leading tackler for three consecutive seasons, the All-SEC linebacker missed the 2016 campaign after having surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. The timing, in a strange way, worked out: USC had enough depth at linebacker last season even to offset the loss of one of its best players, and Moore returns to shepherd a unit that will need the help.
Outside of rising senior Bryson Allen-Williams and rising sophomore T.J. Brunson, there’s not much returning to a linebacker group that said goodbye to three seniors and had freshman Sherrod Pittman leave the program. USC signed four linebackers to its 2017 class, Davonne Bowen of Simpsonville tops among them, but none will arrive until summer.
So Moore’s experience level and leadership will be needed. Expectations can’t be too high given all the time he’s missed, but if Moore is anything like the player who recorded 111 tackles, four interceptions and three forced fumbles in 2015, he’ll prove a huge asset to a USC defense that needs the help.
3. How different will the offensive line look?
After eight seasons at USC, Shawn Elliott left to become head coach at Georgia State and the Gamecocks hired former NFL assistant Eric Wolford to replace him. The new OL coach inherits a rebuilding job, even though the Gamecocks return a number of players who saw action last year.
The good news: Wolford has a future NFL player as a cornerstone in guard-turned-tackle Zack Bailey of Summerville, a rising junior who is one of the most devastating pull-blockers in the SEC. The bad news: This unit underperformed despite a wealth of experience last season, allowing too many sacks and at times even struggling to pick up short yardage on the ground.
Wolford has plenty of returning pieces with which to mix and match, and he’ll have use of 2016 signees who were redshirted last year. Sadarius Hutcherson is one redshirt who will compete for the starting job at left tackle, and the possibility exists that some of those returnees who didn’t meet expectations last season could find themselves passed on the depth chart.
4. Did the Gamecocks fill their need for pass-rushers?
Muschamp banged the drum for pass-rushers in his media appearance immediately following the Birmingham Bowl, and signed four defensive linemen in his 2017 class. One of those, M.J. Webb — rated the No. 220 prospect nationally, according to ESPN — will be on hand for spring practice.
South Carolina said goodbye to Darius English and Marquavius Lewis, two serviceable defensive ends from a unit that finished tied for 11th in the SEC in sacks. There’s a chance for a real overhaul here, but it probably won’t begin in earnest until summer, when signees Javon Kinlaw, Brad Johnson and Aaron Sterling arrive on campus.
In the meantime, Webb certainly has an opportunity to find his niche, as does redshirt freshman Stephon Taylor, a four-star signee from 2016 who sat out last season as he recovered from a shoulder injury. And coaches have long been high on Keir Thomas and D.J. Wonnum, rising sophomores who could anchor this unit going forward.
5. Who is the heir apparent to Elliott Fry?
The biggest single shoe USC has to fill? Not surprisingly, it probably belongs to its kicker, who left as South Carolina’s career scoring leader and a four-year record of reliability probably not appreciated enough at a position where such things aren’t always the case.
Fry leaves the Gamecocks with no clear successor, and as part of an entire kicking unit that will need replacing with long snapper Drew Williams and punter/holder Sean Kelly also having moved on. And you thought last year’s special teams were an adventure?
Muschamp believes Andrew Woznick, who scored 60 points as a high school senior, can be the guy. Michael Almond will compete for both the kicking and punting jobs, and Joseph Charlton will have a chance to handle kickoffs. None of those players attempted a kick last season, or needed to with Fry making 75 percent of his attempts. Particularly in the spring game, few position battles will be as interesting to watch.