Will Muschamp’s second year at South Carolina opens with a different feel than last season.
After suffering through a year with an unbelievably young group of skill players, the Gamecocks suddenly look loaded with scoring potential. A group of defensive backs that was so thin a player who was signed after fall practice began immediately saw action now is stocked with experience and talent.
Muschamp still has plenty of concerns, though.
A linebacker unit that was the deepest part of the team in 2016 now has zero experienced backups. Quarterback options behind starter Jake Bentley are terrifying, making protecting him even more essential than it typically would be. New kicking specialists have potential, but can’t be truly evaluated until they perform in real games.
Here are the top three things Muschamp needs to see answered during preseason camp, which opened Monday.
1. Develop a pass rush
The skinny: Darius English provided the bulk of South Carolina’s sacks last season (nine of the team’s 21), but he’s gone. Without the ability to pressure the passer, there’s no way Muschamp’s defense will be able to succeed. How much of that will come from the line versus other positions remains to be seen.
Muschamp has indicated linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams will get a significant amount of pass-rush opportunities. Senior end Dante Sawyer appears to have the talent to be more productive than he has so far in his career; he had a healthy offseason for the first time. Senior tackle Ulric Jones made progress in his first season under line coach Lance Thompson; is there another level he can get to? Sophomore end D.J. Wonnum is another guy to keep an eye on here.
2. Figure out the offensive line
The skinny: Eric Wolford returns to Columbia after stints as Youngstown State’s head coach and an NFL assistant’s role. He takes over a group returning several starters, but also one that struggled to execute last season.
The best lineman is Zack Bailey, and his move from left guard to right tackle seems permanent. Combined with returning senior guard Cory Helms and center Alan Knott, that should give the Gamecocks one side of the line they can depend on.
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The other side is a question, with Malik Young moving from right tackle to left tackle after starting much of last season and Donell Stanley entering camp as the starting left guard. Stanley was injured on the first series of 2016 and missed the rest of the season after originally winning the starting spot at right guard.
Wolford showed in his previous stay in Columbia that he’s willing to shake up his starters to get the performance he’s looking for. Will that be what it takes with a unit that’s underachieved recently?
3. Solidify special teams
The skinny: South Carolina has its starting kicker and punter from last season.
Michael Almond did punt in the bowl game, though, and Muschamp seems confident Alexander Woznick is ready to step in at kicker. The goal for the rest of the unit will be to improve coverage, a frequent issue last season, and find solid answers for the return spots.
Last season, the Gamecocks went through punt returners like Spinal Tap did drummers, even resorting to unsuccessfully trying to have tight end Hayden Hurst fair catch every punt in one game. As the team’s speed improves through recruiting, the expectation is special teams will as well.
(You can follow Heath Cline on Twitter @heathradio)
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