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South Carolina football spring practice roundtable: Storylines, position battles and who to watch

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Our group of, ahem, experts sat around the virtual table (OK, we actually put our answers into a Google doc) and dished on their thoughts ahead of the opening of Will Muschamp's first spring camp as Gamecocks head coach.

Perry Orth is part of a logjam at the QB spot going into spring, just one of many position battles to watch.
Perry Orth is part of a logjam at the QB spot going into spring, just one of many position battles to watch.
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, one of the main storylines is Will Muschamp taking over the team and bringing in a new offensive and defensive coordinator (Kurt Roper and Travaris Robinson, respectively), which means some brand new systems for the players to learn. How quickly do you think the team will get acclimated and weaned off the old system that Steve Spurrier had in place?

SMcDowell93 - I'm not as concerned with the defense's learning curve as I am with the offense. I think Muschamp (let's not lie to ourselves, we know he's running the defense) has a proven track record of teaching his defense and having it show on the field. Plus, having guys like Skai Moore, talented and smart players, around will help tremendously. I think with the offense it all starts up with the QB situation. The QB needs to understand what everybody on the field is doing at once. Can Connor Mitch, Brandon McIlwain or Perry Orth learn the offense quickly? You could make the argument that McIlwain has the advantage here, as he doesn't have to recycle through old information like Mitch and Orth do to learn the system.

Dan - I'm with Sam. I don't think the defense's adjustment will be as difficult as the offense's. Four or five years ago, I may have thought differently, but recent years have seen Spurrier update/shift his offensive system to be more option-read based. I'm thinking we'll see a lot of change, and hopefully upgrades, on the offensive side of the ball. I don't even know how to describe last year's offense, but I have a feeling it won't look anything like that - even in the Spring Game. One can hope Shawn Elliott sticking around will help ease the transition for players on that side of the ball.

The Depth Chart -Who's on top in the pre-spring depth chart? Who's behind to start? Find out right here.

Richard - I'm with y'all as well. I think the defensive guys have an idea of what Muschamp expects from all his players and will be more eager to learn under one of the best defensive minds in college football. I cant wait to see T-Rob get his hands on guys like Chris Lammons and DJ Smith. As for offense, I think it will take a little longer. It's such an unknown and filled with youth. The beauty of it is everyone is starting at the same level. Each player has to learn the offense/defense, adjust to the coaching styles, and prove they deserve to play. At the conclusion of spring practice, I expect the defense to be more progressive than the offense.

James - My thought is that Coach Roper will try to simplify the offensive playbook as much as possible so that the most athletic QB can step in right away and have some sort of success, while progressing throughout the season (cough cough Brandon McIlwain). I think Muschamp and Robinson may do the opposite on D. It's not a quick fix on defense, even though they did show sporadic signs of improvement last year. And, the return of Skai Moore in the center drastically benefits our chances. But, both coaches are eager to revamp the D their way, so it's going to be the players' responsibilities to learn as much as possible as fast as possible to earn time on the field this year.

Sydney - I'm with you guys in saying that the turnaround may not be as strenuous as some might think. Hopefully Muschamp, Roper and T-Rod keep things simple, like James said, and let the guys grow into the new system. It's key to remember that it's a marathon - not a sprint - and we should head into fall feeling that the guys who went through spring have been fully acclimated into what the new system will entail. However, while I'm sure Muschamp may give the team some rope to start, by the third or fourth day he'll be levying, let's just say, some very loud and very colorful vocabulary upon certain players that he feels aren't catching on as quickly as they need to be.

2016 South Carolina Spring Practice Schedule (bold means open practice)
Tuesday, March 15 4:30
Thursday, March 17 4:30
Friday, March 18 4:30
Saturday, March 19 11:30
Tuesday, March 22 4:30
Thursday, March 24 4:30
Friday, March 25 4:30
Saturday, March 26 11:30
Tuesday, March 29 4:30 (OPEN)
Thursday, March 31 4:30 (OPEN)
Saturday, April 2 11:30
Tuesday, April 5 4:30
Thursday, April 7 4:30
Friday, April 8 4:30
Saturday, April 9 Noon (Garnet and Black Spring Game; OPEN)

The early enrollees will be in the spotlight as they equal a truly talented group. Out of the players that have enrolled early, who do you foresee making the biggest impact and staking his claim going into the fall session?

SMcDowell93 - I know McIlwain is by far our most heralded recruit, but I really think Bryan Edwards is going to have the biggest impact of the new crop of players. The wide receiver position is thin this year and, with Edwards having a ton of talent, he will have an immediate shot to come in and star for the Gamecocks.

Sydney - Agreed on Edwards. Muschamp has a lot of faith in him and it shows, since he'll be atop the depth chart at WR going into spring. One thing that concerns me, and Muschamp mentioned it in his press conference on Monday afternoon, is the fact that Edwards is still a little "slow" due to his knee injury, but if he can pan out to be the player that the Gamecocks think he can turn out to be, then he might be the latest in a line of WRs to make it big at South Carolina.

WHO WE'RE WATCHING AMONG EARLY ENROLLEES -C.J. Freeman (RB) -Bryan Edwards (WR) -Brandon McIlwain (QB)

Dan - McIlwain is my pick here. Maybe it's unreasonable to expect a freshman QB to push for playing time, especially over a returning senior signal caller, but I really think the Pennsylvania native will make some noise this spring. He may not emerge as the starter, but I think his impact will be felt across the depth chart. It wouldn't shock me to see him getting some spot playing time early in the season. Entering the season as the starter? Not likely. Pushing Orth and the rest of the QBs? Making plays running and throwing? That's the kind of early impact I'm expecting. And with Pharoh Cooper moving on, that's exactly what the Gamecocks need.

Richard - If this question would have asked which early enrollee would have the biggest impact at the conclusion of the season, I would say Brandon McIlwain. Going into camp, though, I think it has to be Bryan Edwards. The fact that the freshman, after coming off ACL surgery, is listed as a starter in the pre-spring depth chart tells me Muschamp and McClendon see a playmaker with great potential, but it re-enforces to me that South Carolina doesn't have many impressive wide receivers. It also tells me that the coaches are very serious about giving everyone an opportunity to prove themselves and will not play favorites to previous starters or upperclassmen.

James - C.J. Freeman. The running back out Greensboro, N.C. wasn't listed on the initial spring depth chart, but as the spring progresses, I think it's a name we're going to hear more and more. David Williams' first two seasons haven't proved he's ready to carry the load in the running game, and while Rod Talley showed some brief glimpses of walk-on greatness, he's, well, a walk-on. Freeman was underrated on the recruiting trail, but is riding a hot end to his high school career.

Right Out Of the Gate Highly touted freshman WR Bryan Edwards enters spring camp as WR1 on the depth chart. (photo courtesy Student Sports)

Where do you see the most important battle taking place on this team? There are still questions at quarterback, WR is thin with D.J. Neal's transfer, and there are still holes to fill on defense.

Sydney - This is a tough question because there are so many ways to answer this. At this point, I'll have to go with quarterback because it may be the most important position on this team right now, and because it's not like a position like wide receiver where you can probably get away without having a clear-cut #1 option, in some cases; that is, if your QB's really good. I can't sit here today and tell you with certainty whether Perry Orth, Lorenzo Nunez, or Connor Mitch will be starting on September 1, 2016 at Vanderbilt. Two reasons: the merry-go-round last year that was set in motion partially by Mitch's injury, and the fact that a new coach and offensive system is in place - we'll have a fresh set of eyes in Muschamp and Roper examining things and making their decision based partially on what they'll see this spring. (Well, three - the third being Orth's inconsistent play.) It could be that Brandon McIlwain absolutely blows them out of the water and sends a message that he is the undisputed #1 starter. I don't know, and neither does anyone else right now. We'll see how it plays out.

SMcDowell93 - Winning games starts with defense, first and foremost. It's hard to point out one particular position group to keep an eye on because, honestly, every position is probably up for grabs on that side of the ball. However, if I had to pick one, I think the secondary is likely the position to watch this spring and see how they improve.

Dan - Running back. The best teams in recent memory had good running backs. Marcus Lattimore, Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds. Regardless of who's behind center, they need a reliable back to hand the ball off to in order to relieve some of the pressure. Whether it's Orth, Mitch, Nunez or McIlwain calling the signals, a steady hand at RB is critical during this season of transition. My hope is David Williams thrives in the new offense, but don't count out freshman early enrollee Rico Dowdle to turn some heads this spring.

Richard - Quarterback. It all starts with the quarterback. Right now it's wide open. Muschamp has stated he wants a QB who makes people better around him, a leader, a competitor. Lack of production at QB was one of the main reasons Muschamp failed at Florida. That cannot happen again. I expect Muschamp and Roper to make it certain that their past mistakes will not be repeated.

James - It's a tie for me between WR/RB/QB. It's no secret the Gamecocks are dire at proven playmakers on offense going into 2016; therefore, a rise of any one playmaker before the season kicks off will thoroughly excite my visual senses. Please, anyone, answer the call.

Which returning player has the most to prove, not only in the spring, but in the fall going into actual gameplay?

Sydney - One name came to mind with this question: David Williams. Williams will be a redshirt junior in the fall and comes in as a RB1 on the first spring depth chart. Problem is, he'll have to earn it. I wasn't overwhelmingly impressed with Williams's play in 2015 and felt that he was capable of so much more, especially after being touted as a co-featured back alongside Brandon Wilds (which, well, didn't work out as planned). The thing is that Williams has to prove with his actions that he's the undisputed starter from day one. If he doesn't, he'll find himself looking up at another player on the depth chart.

SMcDowell93 - Well, Sydney took my answer so I guess I'll have to actually do some research for this one. I think Marquavius Lewis has a great deal to prove. He came in as a highly regarded recruit, and while he had a solid season last year, he didn't make all that many spectacular plays. I think maybe learning from a new defensive staff (and maybe a defensive line coach that, you know, knows how to coach) will benefit his development greatly.

WHO HAS THE MOST TO PROVE? -Qua Lewis (DE) -Connor Mitch (QB) -Perry Orth (QB) -David Williams (RB) -Mason Zandi (OL)

Dan - Agree with both Sydney and Sam, but I'm going to pick Perry Orth. Orth was thrust into the spotlight last year after Connor Mitch and Lorenzo Nunez went down with injuries. Yes, Orth went 1-7 as a starter, but he seemed to be improving game-by-game and played admirably against Clemson's vaunted defense. Did Orth really come into his own or was he just the best option given the injury report? With an all-new coaching staff and fully healthy QB depth chart, it'll be interesting to see if the Florida native can hold on to his starter spot. As of writing this, the first depth chart has been released and nothing seems set in stone in the QB position. But one has to think that Orth's in-game experience gives him at least a minor lead on his competition.

Richard - Honestly, just about everyone needs to prove something after what we saw last season, but I'm going to go outside the box and say Mason Zandi. He will compete for the the left tackle spot after starting 10 games last season. The former two-star was brought in for his potential and earned a starting spot on Shawn Elliott's OL, but performed up and down last season. The counter: I'm a big fan of Christian Pellage, the redshirt freshman with whom he will competing against for one of the tackle spots. You need guys like Zandi because you know he has the ultimate love for being a Gamecock and will give maximum effort. He is already off to a good start as Muschamp relayed from Roper that Zandi has been one of the vocal leaders in the winter workouts.

James - I'm not gonna give up on Connor Mitch after minimal opportunity last year. The fact is, Mitch probably played a total of 15 snaps at 100% percent health last year as the starter. Sure, the fact that he may not be the toughest and most durable player is slightly frightening, but something makes me believe the book has barely been started on his career at South Carolina. Maybe it's just hopeless optimism, but I'm not ready to cancel him out just yet.

What's the measure of success heading into the 2016 season? Granted, there's not a lot of reasons to believe that things will be worse, but realistically, what would qualify as a success for Will Muschamp?

SMcDowell93 - Honestly, I think we just need to make a bowl game and stay competitive against better competition. I think we have a chance to pull a couple upsets next year with Tennessee, Texas A&M, and UGA at home. I do believe we need to steal at least one of those games and take care of business where we will likely be favored (i.e. ECU, Vandy, Western Carolina etc.). Making a bowl game, getting Willy B packed and raucous again, and just generally creating excitement around the program next season constitutes a successful year.

Dan - A bowl game for sure. Give us the same results Spurrier had in his first couple of season and I think the fanbase will be thrilled. Six or seven wins, with an upset or two between Tennessee, Texas A&M, UGA, UF and Clemson sounds like a majorly successful campaign.

2016 SOUTH CAROLINA FOOTBALL SCHEDULE 9/1 - @ Vanderbilt 9/10 - @ Mississippi State 9/17 - East Carolina 9/24 - @ Kentucky 10/1 - Texas A&M 10/8 - Georgia 10/22 - UMass 10/29 - Tennessee 11/5 - Missouri 11/12 - @ Florida 11/19 - Western Carolina 11/26 - @ Clemson

Richard - I agree Dan, definitely a bowl game. The schedule finally sets up favorably for the Gamecocks in 2016. It wouldn't surprise me to see them start 4-0 based on who the opponents are. Add in what seems to be winnable games (thanks, Citadel) against UMass and Western Carolina and I think it's very reasonable to say six wins is attainable, even if you don't have them winning the first four games of the season.

James - Wins and losses aren't going to tell the whole story of success this year for the Gamecocks. Let's be honest, this is a rebuilding project. It's not as bad as what Frank Martin inherited from Darrin Horn, or Spurrier from Holtz for that matter. But, this is a multiple year project, not a one-year quick fix.

That said, compete in all 12 games, win the games you're supposed to win, and see if you can't steal one or two in the process. Who knows? We may find ourselves with a bowl bid. South Carolina should be hungry. If they quench that hunger every day, they'll find success.

Sydney - I'd be happy with six wins and a bowl, because that will show that at least this team is on the right track and is able to compete. With that said, Muschamp comes in with a chip on his shoulder after the way things fell apart at Florida. As was mentioned above, he learned some hard lessons on his way out of Gainesville. Can he use that as fuel to clearly identify needs and address them? I think he will. We know he is a masterful recruiter, and if he can show that the team is on the right track, is able to keep talented kids from leaving the state (which is one of the reasons why he brought in Bobby Bentley, considered a legend in South Carolina prep football circles), and can develop them, then Gamecocks football can get back on the right path.