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Know Your Enemy: The South Carolina Gamecocks

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Shane Beamer takes over a program whose reach perpetually exceeds its grasp. He may change things. But not this year.

NCAA Football: Georgia at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Home Stadium: Williams-Brice Stadium, an infernal slab of concrete unceremoniously dropped in the middle of a parking lot excreted into the middle of a city which can best be described as a waste of perfectly good pasture land.

Head Coach: Shane Beamer (first year).

Notable Alumni: Former Augusta National chairman William “Hootie” Johnson and all four members of Hootie & the Blowfish.

2020 record: 2-8, 2-8 SEC. It was a dismal effort that spelled the end of the Will Muschamp era (and the relatively brief ensuing Mike Bobo era).

It won’t be worse...

Shane Beamer brings to Columbia enthusiasm and credibility earned from stints under Kirby Smart at Georgia and Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma. Throw in his prior experience and Beamer has spent an awful lot of time in close proximity to outstanding college football. The question for Gamecock fans is whether that’s mere correlation or actual causation.

The cupboard on offense at least isn’t completely bare. The Garnet & Black return one of the most dynamic players in the country in tailback Kevin Harris. Harris stepped in for former five star recruit MarShawn Lloyd when he went down with a knee injury and proceeded to churn out 1138 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. Harris is the kind of talent you can build an offense around, and may be the closest thing to a true workhorse tailback in Columbia since Marcus Lattimore was healthy.

The problem is that the Gamecocks are going to need to put the ball in the air at some point. And it’s not 100% clear that they have anyone capable of doing so reliably. The quarterback race appeared to be between Luke Doty, who started the final two games of last season, and FCS transfer Jason Brown. Doty won the job, but suffered a severe foot sprain last week and may or may not be available when the season starts.

If he takes longer to recover than expected the Gamecocks could be in a bind. Doty is the only signal caller on the roster with any SEC experience, at least other than receiver Dakereon Joyner, a former South Carolina Mr. Football who’s now moved outside. Brown and true freshman Holden Geriner out of Savannah would likely be the other options. Bit that’s not a great choice.

On the bright side, whoever ends up under center will have an offensive line up front with solid experience. Right guard Jovaughn Gwyn started 21 games over the past two seasons. Right tackle Dylan Wonnum has 24 starts over the past three seasons under his belt. Center Eric Douglas started all ten games in 2020. While counting offensive line starts has an uneven record as a predictor of success, that continuity can’t hurt when there’s so much change elsewhere.

But it could be better....

And there’s no position on the roster less experienced than the receivers. Gone is 2020’s leading receiver Shi Smith, though senior tight end Nick Muse (30 catches for 425 yards last season) is back. The aforementioned Joyner has drawn solid reviews after recording only 7 receptions for 55 yards last year. The same could be said for junior Josh Vann, who flashed potential but ended 2020 with only 10 grabs for 88 yards. I just don’t know that there’s a guy in the position group who can consistently take the attention away from Harris, which may be a problem for the Gamecock offense.

Wide, but not deep

The South Carolina defense will, as has been the case in years past, have some true standouts. Senior defensive lineman Kingsley Enagbare was a preseason first team all-SEC selection. Junior Zacch Pickens is a serious contender to make the postseason list. Aaron Sterling and former top recruit Jordan Burch are also back. In short, the SCar defensive front is relatively strong.

But from there things get dicey. Linebacker Ernest Jones was the team’s top tackler last season and departed for the NFL. In his stead new defensive coordinator Clayton White will rely on a group of returning linebackers that includes Sherrod Greene, Mohamed Kaba, Jahmar Brown, and Rosendo Louis. The problem is that among them they totaled 20 tackles last season. Will some combination of them step up in 2021? Maybe. If they don’t, or if the Gamecocks suffer injuries at linebacker (an issue in 2020), the middle of the defense could be exposed.

That would be less of a problem if the secondary wasn’t a question mark as well. The ‘Cocks lost five defensive backs from 2020 to graduation, the NFL, and the transfer portal. That includes safety Jammie Robinson, who was second only to Jones in tackles last season and transferred to Florida State. And Israel Mukuama, who led the team in interceptions and left early for the NFL.

Oh, and Jaycee Horn, who tied with Mukuama for the interception tittle and is now getting ready for his rookie year with the Carolina Panthers. With the exception of sophomore corner Cam Smith (16 tackles, 2 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions in 2020) the Fightin’ Beamers will need unproven players to step up big.

Special Sauce

If there’s any group where the Gamecocks are pretty safe, it’s on special teams. Fifth year senior Parker White returns to handle the placekicking duties. And sophomore Kai Kroeger averaged 43.3 yards per boot as a true freshman. Finally, Dakereon Joyner averaged a very solid 23.5 yards on 7 kickoff returns.

The Final Analysis

If there’s a bright spot for Beamer it may be that South Carolina’s schedule is almost embarrassingly soft. Other than instate rival Clemson their non-conference opponents are Eastern Illinois, East Carolina, and Troy. And while they have to travel to Texas A&M, they get Auburn in Williams-Brice. The Garnet and Black should be 2-0 when they roll into Athens on September 18th.

And while they’ll likely roll out with a loss, it will be hard not to stumble spurs-first into at least five wins. If they can pick off Mizzou or Auburn, bowl eligibility is a real possibility. But Beamer will need at least another solid cycle of recruiting if he wants the ‘Cocks to rise above the mediocrity of the Muschamp era.

Score prediction: Georgia 41, South Carolina 24.