The first part of the team that we're taking a look at this week is the defense. Though last season was defined by disappointment and maddening inconsistency, the defense wasn't actually terrible. The Gamecocks ended last season with a .972 fielding percentage, which was just barely in the bottom half of the SEC. The problem was that the defense was only average, and in a program that expects to be elite year in and year out, that's not good enough.
South Carolina has the opportunity to improve this season, as the defense will look almost completely different. The Gamecocks bid farewell to several players that were staples of the team and will definitely be missed. But last year there were few positions that really had consistent starters, whether due to injury, defensive struggles, or lineups being shuffled to try to solve Carolina's issues at the plate. This year we can hope that Holbrook finds a lineup that meshes well both from an offensive and defensive standpoint and allows the team to settle into their roles a little better.
The Gamecocks have three options at catcher this season. Logan Koch, who started a few more games than Hunter Taylor behind the plate last year, left the Gamecock baseball program after the season ended. That leaves the Gamecocks with one returning catcher in sophomore Hunter Taylor. The two other players now vying for that position are sophomore junior college transfer John Jones and freshman Chris Cullen. Holbrook said a few weeks ago that each of these three players brings something different to the table, but that all three are really good and that he feels comfortable about the catcher position. He said it may even be one of the strengths of the team. Holbrook also mentioned that he may get two of the catchers into the lineup at once by playing one behind the plate and DHing the other.
The infield will look very different for the Gamecocks this season. Reliable senior first baseman Kyle Martin is gone and Max Schrock, who battled injury but still started at second in the majority of Carolina's games, signed with the Nationals. In addition, Jordan Gore decided to transfer rather than return to the team after starting at shortstop for much of the 2015 season.
All of those departures mean that the only returning infielder who started the majority of last season's games at his position is senior third baseman DC Arendas. Sophomore Madison Stokes saw playing time at third base last year and was battling for a starting job, but is out for several weeks to start the season after suffering a foot injury in a scrimmage. Senior Marcus Mooney, who started 32 games last year but split his time between second base and shortstop, is also returning for the Gamecocks. Mooney struggled some last year and missed time due to an injury, but he is ready to go for this season and is likely to be the regular starter at shortstop to begin the year.
Holbrook has said that he intends to put sophomore Alex Destino, who was the DH in most of last year's games, at first base. Other newcomers to the Gamecocks infield could include sophomore junior college transfer Jonah Bride and freshman LT Tolbert. Tolbert in particular has impressed Holbrook, who has said that he wants to find a way to get the freshman into the starting lineup. Other players on the roster that may see time in the infield include junior Weber Pike and sophomore Matt Williams, both of whom had little playing time last season.
The Carolina outfield will also have some big changes this season. Elliott Caldwell graduated after starting more games than anyone else in both left field and right field and Connor Bright, the only other player that started in right last season, also graduated.
Centerfielder Gene Cone, now a junior, was the only player for the Gamecocks that started every game at the same position last season. He missed fall practice with an injury, but was one of the best defenders on the team last year and should play a key role for the Gamecocks this season. The only other returning player with any starts in the outfield is sophomore Clark Scolamiero, who started in left field 13 times last season. Holbrook said that he has been steady, but did scuffle some in preseason scrimmages.
Holbrook said recently that the outfielders have been a little inconsistent and that there may be some rotation in the outfield until some of the guys separate themselves as the consistent starters. The new players in the mix for playing time in the outfield are freshmen Danny Blair, TJ Hopkins and Brandon McIlwain. Junior college transfer Dom Thompson-Williams is another newcomer that is expected to be in the mix and make an immediate impact for the Gamecocks. Holbrook has said that he expects Dom to be on the field opening day because he's physically mature and can be a difference-maker for the team.
Overall, Holbrook has been very positive about the defense following the team's spring scrimmages and said that the players he thinks will be the regular starters have played great defense. As the season begins and the starters emerge and cement their roles on the field, the Gamecocks should be able to put together a defense that helps the team improve and leave last year's misfortunes in the past.