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Grading the Gamecocks: South Carolina’s season so far

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With the bye week upon us, let’s take a step back and assess what’s going on here.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The South Carolina Gamecocks finally get a much-needed open date to rest, heal up, and hopefully come back better than before. Rather than rehash the Texas A&M game again specifically, I figured it would be worth pulling back to take a look at the big picture. At the halfway point of the season, what’s the state of the program?

Quarterback: C

There’s been so much ink spilled on this issue already, with I’m sure much more to come. Here’s the long and short of it: Jake Bentley is undeniably having a rough year, while Michael Scarnecchia showed some impressive poise in his lone start. I’m neither a Bentley defender nor a Scarnecchia truther — or rather, I guess I should say I’m a little of both. I’m fine with Bentley maintaining his hold on the starting job, especially after he rebounded in the second half against Texas A&M, but I also think it’s fair and perhaps warranted to give Scarnecchia more opportunities. Ideally, Bentley operates the rest of this season with a short leash, now that the coaching staff knows they have a legitimate backup to send in. The Gamecocks have their backs against the wall when it comes to bowl eligibility, especially with the continued mystery over adding a 12th game, so there’s no harm in experimenting here. If nothing else, the Connor Shaw/Dylan Thompson tandem showed us that opportunistically swapping quarterbacks around can work. It’s just going to depend on the coaching staff’s willingness to try new things.

Wide receiver/tight end: D

Drops on drops on drops on drops. I think it’s safe to say that outside of quarterback, the single biggest disappointment this season rests with the receiving corps, which is underachieving to a mind-boggling extent. Coming into the year, fans were excited to see a versatile and athletic group with the likes of Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards, Shi Smith, and others at the disposal of South Carolina’s offense. Unfortunately, things have largely not broken their way. Losing OrTre Smith to a season-ending surgery hurt, but that has nothing to do with how a formerly sure-handed unit has dropped catchable ball after catchable ball in big moments and in big games. Shi Smith is the standout at this point with his explosiveness and reliability, but even he wasn’t immune to getting butterfingers in the loss to Texas A&M. Samuel, who has had some really nice plays but doesn’t look like himself, might still be getting back to game speed after the injury he suffered last year, while Edwards seems to be in a pattern of following up incredible snags with head-shaking drops. It’s developed into an epidemic, and the Gamecocks just don’t have the margin of error to withstand shaky play from the guys who are supposed to be their stars. I said it elsewhere, but if the receivers were simply as steady as they were last year, this team would be much better off. Instead, they’ve shown a frustrating tendency to botch even routine plays.

Running back: F

This is a difficult position group to parse out, because it just doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. The Gamecocks’ running backs possess some talent and skill, but there’s not a game-breaker among them, and the coaching staff doesn’t seem to manage the rotation with any kind of rhyme or reason. Starter Rico Dowdle has 351 yards on 82 carries for a 4.2 yards per carry average, but just two rushing scores (to go with one receiving touchdown) and a long of only 29 yards. He also, of course, has a couple of infamous fumbles that helped put the Gamecocks in early holes against Georgia and Kentucky. Ty’Son Williams, on the other hand, has 255 yards on almost half the carries (46) for a 5.5 ypc average and two touchdowns of his own, but frequently misses large chunks of games. I don’t know if he’s constantly hurt, constantly in the dog house, or what, but all evidence points to him being the most complete back on South Carolina’s roster — and he doesn’t play nearly as much as he should. There’s also A.J. Turner, who showed out in a big way last year when Dowdle went down with injury but has so far seen a bizarrely small amount of snaps, and Mon Denson, who is a reserve but has run hard in his few opportunities.

The bottom line is that the lack of a reliable running game, along with inconsistent wide receiver play, is killing this offense. Again, there aren’t any true studs in the Gamecocks’ stable, but there’s enough versatility to cobble together a halfway decent rushing attack. And unless South Carolina is playing the Coastal Carolinas and Vanderbilts of the world, it’s not materializing — the Gamecocks are dead last in the SEC with 922 yards and only five rushing TDs. I’m not sure if it’s a scheme issue, a personnel management issue, or both, but something is just way off here.

Offensive line: A

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an expert or even a particularly knowledgeable observer when it comes to evaluating an offensive line’s performance, but even from that limited standpoint, this unit is the clear MVP of the offense. The group has allowed just eight sacks through five games, frequently giving Bentley ample protection and time in the pocket, and is virtually never penalized for false starts, illegal use of hands, and so on. Run blocking is probably the weak spot here, but regardless, this is by far the best offensive line play South Carolina has seen in some time. The preseason fears about inexperienced starters and lack of functional depth have all but dissipated.

Defensive line: C

I almost want to give this unit an incomplete, because losing D.J. Wonnum so quickly into the season and for so many weeks has really had an impact, and he’ll be back after the bye week. But we might as well evaluate what we’ve seen so far, and it’s been up and down. I think a lot of folks thought this group could be sneaky good — not just with Wonnum after his impressive 2017, but also with Javon Kinlaw. Kinlaw turned in a monster performance against Vanderbilt, but has been busy with lot of double teams, and players like Keir Thomas and Aaron Sterling are sporadically productive. The Gamecocks are 12th in the SEC with just 10 sacks, and often seem either a step too late to get to the quarterback or overpursuing and taking themselves out of plays. Overall, this unit had been steady and shows flashes of potential.

Linebackers: F

A unit that was assumed to be a relative strength has actually proven to be a weakness for the Gamecocks. South Carolina clearly misses Skai Moore, and although veteran T.J. Brunson was expected to step up and help fill that void, he’s been virtually silent. Sherrod Greene, as a new starter and younger player, has gone through predictable growing pains, contrasting some great plays with head-scratching mistakes. Bryson Allen-Williams stands out as the only true disruptive force in this group — but he also lines up at defensive end and is more of a hybrid player. Overall, this unit has been a liability and is probably the biggest reason the Gamecocks’ rushing defense is so soft. Arm tackling, poor angles, miscommunication — we’ve seen it all from the linebacking corps, and very little of it is pretty.

Secondary: C

The defensive backfield topped the list of concerns for many South Carolina fans and observers in the offseason, but in another reversal, it’s become a somewhat steady unit. Freshman Jaycee Horn has been an absolute revelation at corner and could have a special Gamecock career, while Rashad Fenton has continued his impressive lockdown play. Jamyest Williams has been having a shaky year, though, and safety stands out as the biggest weakness. Across the board, South Carolina’s DBs still look just a bit too small, and that’s bitten them at times. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how the secondary has pulled together, especially after injuries to guys like J.T. Ibe and Nick Harvey, who the coaching staff was counting on to provide veteran depth. This unit could’ve been a disaster, and while it certainly has room for improvement, I wouldn’t say the Gamecocks have been torched through the air yet. (Texas A&M’s 353 yards is the closest candidate for that, but it was largely thanks to Jace Sternberger’s bananas 145-yard performance and the complete inability of anyone on South Carolina’s roster to tackle him after the catch.)

Specialists: B

I’m giving this grade based mostly on the unexpected reliability of the kicking game, which has made a 180 from this time last year. Parker White’s performance against Missouri alone was something I don’t think anyone would’ve expected from him, and it bodes well for his future and the Gamecocks. Unfortunately, almost everything else concerning special teams leaves something to be desired, and most glaring of all is the lack of production in the return game. Obviously, everyone knows how dangerous Samuel is now, so it’s not surprising he hasn’t gotten many touches on kickoffs. But even when he does, the blocking evaporates so quickly that he just doesn’t have a chance. Edwards has also been a non-factor on punt returns, and when he finally got loose enough to break one, he fumbled. Outside of White and Joseph Charlton (who has had a couple bad shanks but normally booms his punts), this phase of the game needs serious attention.