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South Carolina season preview: Questions everywhere for Will Muschamp

Will Muschamp
COURTESY SOUTH CAROLINA ATHLETICS

The Steve Spurrier era at South Carolina was an unquestioned success. He gave fans incredible moments, like the first top-five finish in school history, the Gamecocks’ first trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game, a first-ever victory over a No. 1 team, and five consecutive wins over Clemson.

Alas, like what happens with many beloved TV shows, a successful run went one season too long, saw too many stars leave and lost the plot entirely.

But instead of worrying about whether that makes Jon Hoke the college football equivalent of Cousin Oliver from the Brady Bunch, it's time to turn our attention to the next show's debut. Will Muschamp is looking to prove he can be a successful SEC head coach and takes over a roster needing major talent upgrades across the board. If he can get this Gamecocks squad to a bowl, he'll be on his way to accomplishing that.

Offense

BACKFIELD: One thing Muschamp has going for him that he never had in Florida is quarterback depth. Between Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley, he has two four-star true freshmen who appear more gifted than any prospect Spurrier ever had at the position. Having gone through spring practice, McIlwain is more likely to play first, but Bentley's talent is clear. With two SEC road tests to open the season, senior Perry Orth may begin under center because of his experience. Even if that happens, McIlwain still likely would see action. One or both freshmen will start games before the season is out. No matter who the quarterback is, he might not get much help from the running game. Redshirt freshman A.J. Turner has won praise from coaches, but he would be a better option as a change-of-pace speed back rather than the lead figure at the position. Unless junior David Williams starts to live up to his obvious potential, it may take North Carolina transfer TySon Williams becoming eligible next season to give South Carolina the ground game it wants.

Deebo Samuel, who has 12 career catches, is South Carolina's key offensive player. JIM DEDMON/USA TODAY SPORTS

Deebo Samuel, who has 12 career catches, might be South Carolina's key offensive player. JIM DEDMON/USA TODAY SPORTS

RECEIVERS: This group's development will tell the story of South Carolina's offense. No one with significant experience returns, although there are some intriguing talents based on limited exposure in 2015. Sophomore Deebo Samuel missed seven games entirely and parts of three others with a hamstring injury. His nine catches in 2015's final two games after healing and a strong spring game make him appear to be the lead dog at this position. Former minor league baseball player Hayden Hurst was rusty and split time between receiver and tight end after walking-on last season. He's looked much better as a full-time tight end in camp and has size and athleticism that's critical for a South Carolina squad looking for answers all over. Four-star true freshman Bryan Edwards had two touchdown catches in the spring game, and is healthier now after being limited with a lingering knee issue from high school. Converted tailback Jamari Smith could do damage from the slot and has nice quickness and moves in the open field. In the three open practices, this group as a whole struggled to consistently catch the ball. If that carries over into the fall, it's going to be tough for the Gamecocks to do much.

LINE: This is the only area of the team with continuity from last season, as Shawn Elliott was retained as position coach. Senior T Mason Zandi is a leader for the group, which will benefit from the offense moving toward shorter routes and thus quicker passes. Wake Forest transfer Cory Helms is the key new on-field arrival and may well end up starting at center to begin the season. On a squad with youth across the board at the skill positions, this group will need to be solid every game for the Gamecocks to have any shot at a bowl.

Defense

LINE: No position group has more underachieving talent this one, with the position coaching for the final three years of the Spurrier era considered highly suspect. The Gamecocks have a number of former four-star signees and the new staff has been working with them to draw out their potential. If new position coach Lance Thompson converts Marquavius Lewis from a guy who flashes ability a few plays a game to a guy who consistently brings his best, he could become a force. DT Kelsey Griffin had moments of impact last season. With more plays, can he produce at the same rate? Muschamp intends to rotate a lot of bodies in to keep this unit fresh - as many as 10 guys could see time. Redshirt freshman Daniel Fennell could be the young name fans need to know here.

Hard-hitting T.J. Holloman will be one of South Carolina's defensive leaders this season. JEREMY BREVARD/USA TODAY SPORTS

Hard-hitting T.J. Holloman will be one of South Carolina's defensive leaders this season. JEREMY BREVARD/USA TODAY SPORTS

LINEBACKERS: Even without injured three-year starter Skai Moore, this is the strength of the defense. Senior T.J. Holloman is quietly excellent, and big things are expected from junior Bryson Allen-Williams after the last staff seemed to have no idea how to properly use him. Having two coaches working with this unit, including highly respected NFL veteran Mike Peterson, should help. One assistant handled the linebackers the past three seasons.

SECONDARY: Other areas could turn out to be big issues, but there's no question this is the biggest proven trouble spot on the roster. Muschamp's defense requires cornerbacks capable of tight man coverage. Last season's staff clearly didn't trust their corners to be able to do that, often lining them up 10 yards off receivers to avoid big plays. Now junior Chris Lammons and sophomore Rashad Fenton will be asked to do the job. Safety is an area Muschamp assigned himself to work with out of concern with what he saw there. Junior D.J. Smith has impressive athleticism but hasn't gotten a lot of on-field work the past two seasons. If Smith succeeds with this staff, it will be a further indictment of assistant coaches in recent years. Muschamp seems to have found a group of starters he's comfortable with, but avoiding injuries will be huge here.

Special teams

The kicking game should be a strength. Elliot Fry is a senior who doesn't have a cannon leg but has shown good accuracy. Sean Kelly's punting was excellent last season and will help avoid-field position issues should a young offense struggle this season. Kelly had an off-field issue during camp but isn't expected to miss any game time. Fenton returned a kickoff for a touchdown last season, the first time a Gamecock had done that since 2002, and might get to try his hand at punt returns this season. For South Carolina to win six games and get to a bowl, it is going to have to be consistently high quality in all aspects of special teams.

Schedule

The overall collection of teams is not especially imposing by SEC standards, but the tricky issue for the Gamecocks is the way they've been scheduled to play the group. Having to go on the road for three conference games in the first four weeks of the season? That's nearly unheard of. That means a young team with new schemes on both sides of the ball will be much more likely to struggle than if the games with Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky were later in the season. A team that's potentially improved enough to beat those kind of squads in November will instead see Florida and Clemson on the road that month. Only Massachusetts and Western Carolina seem like sure wins right now, with East Carolina the next most likely. How the Gamecocks do in those toss-up road games in September will determine their bowl chances.

Facts and figures

Last season: 3-9 overall, 1-7 in SEC
Past five years, overall: 43-21
Past five years, SEC: 22-18
Past 10 years, overall: 80-49
Past 10 years, SEC: 40-41 (including 0-1 record in SEC championship game)

RELATED: Gamecocks' QB decision still looming -- and it's a 3-man battle
RELATED: Under Will Muschamp, 'things are ... a lot different around here'

(You can follow Heath Cline on Twitter @heathradio)

© 2016, Heath Cline. All rights reserved.

© 2016, gridironnow.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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