South Carolina kicks off the 2019 season against North Carolina Saturday in Charlotte and Will Muschamp likes the team he will put on the field.
But it’s the season opener, so plenty of questions remain.
“First game, so expect the unexpected,” he said.
North Carolina features a new/old head coach in Mack Brown as well as new offensive and defensive coordinators. The Tar Heels were 2-9 last season and have won just five games over the past two seasons, but Brown, who Muschamp coached for at Texas, has pumped new life into the program.
The Gamecocks are coming off a 7-6 season and were embarrassed the last time they played at Bank of America Stadium, losing to Virginia 28-0 in the Belk Bowl. They return 16 starters, however, including senior quarterback Jake Bentley, so Muschamp is optimistic.
“We think it's our most talented team we've had and the deepest team that we've had,” he said. “We need to go up to Charlotte, and we need to play well. I thought we've had good preparation.”
Here’s a look at seven things to watch for in the season opener.
1. Can They Run The Ball?
Improving the running game has been one of the primary goals in training camp. The Gamecocks were 12th in the SEC in rushing last season, averaging just 153 yards per game.
They should get a big boost from Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster, who has adapted to the South Carolina offense quickly and appears poised to make a big impact. Seniors Rico Dowdle and Mon Denson also looked good in training camp and Muschamp has not named a starter yet. Feaster and Dowdle are expected to get the majority of carries.
“The offensive line is doing a great job up front, that’s where it starts in the trenches, and I believe every guy has been running hard,” Feaster said. “I believe we are capable of great things if we keep pushing each other day in and day out.”
North Carolina was 13th in the ACC in rushing defense last year, allowing 219 yards per game, and have a former quarterback starting at linebacker.
Bentley believes the running game will be better this season with a trio of experienced backs.
“The running backs have been faced with a lot of situations in understanding what they need to do and how successful our offense is going to be if they are running the ball effectively,” he said. “I think [running backs] coach [Thomas] Brown has done a tremendous job and having him here makes us more confident in what we can do.”
2. Depth Must Pay Off
Carolina has quality depth at almost every position and it will be needed early. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. with temperatures in the high-80s to low-90s.
The big test will come on the two lines. Redshirt freshman Hank Manos will be making just his second career start at center — he started the Belk Bowl in Charlotte — and sophomore Eric Douglas will make his first at right guard. Donell Stanley, Sadarius Hutcherson and Dylan Wonnum are returning starters, but the backups are all freshmen and sophomores.
The Gamecocks have boasted throughout the offseason about the improved depth on the defensive line, but they have already suffered two key injuries. Junior-college transfer Devontae Davis will miss the season after having foot surgery and starter Kier Thomas will miss the first two games with an ankle injury. Thomas was expected to play both defensive tackle and defensive end.
Returners Aaron Sterling and J.J. Enagbare will split time at defensive end while freshman Joe Anderson might get some time. Seniors Javon Kinlaw and Kobe Smith will start at defensive tackle while sophomore Rick Sandidge and freshman Zacch Pickens will see plenty of action. Jabari Ellis, Tyreek Johnson and Griffin Gentry could also play.
There is depth at linebacker and defensive back as well, but several young players will be playing key roles. Sophomore Ernest Jones will start at middle linebacker with senior captain T.J. Brunson moving to the weak side, creating more depth behind them. The secondary is experienced but four freshmen may also play.
Muschamp said it will help his team "to be able to roll three groups out there and be very competitive and to know that even in that third group, there's guys that are going to help our football team.”
3. Who Plays Tight End?
The one position that lacks depth is tight end, which has lost two players in the last two weeks. Senior Kiel Pollard, who was expected to start, retired from football after suffering a neck injury and Evan Hinson decided to transfer to play basketball.
Junior Kyle Markway, who has just six career catches, will start and the coaching staff moved backup offensive lineman Chandler Farrell to tight end to help with blocking. They were hoping transfer Nick Muse would be eligible but the NCAA still has not yet ruled on his appeal.
4. Can They Slow The Tar Heel Offense?
The Tar Heels had a strong offense last season, averaging 27 points and 432 yards per game. Now they are led by former Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo, whose offense put up 616 yards in a 48-44 loss to South Carolina. The Gamecocks expect to see a similar up-tempo offense from North Carolina.
“We have watched a lot of Ole Miss stuff. Going off what happened last year, we expect him to carry a lot of that over,” linebacker T.J. Brunson said. “They go really fast, but I think we have done a good [job] this offseason getting prepared for those types of offenses.”
The Tar Heels have talent at running back and wide receiver but will start true freshman Sam Howell at quarterback. Muschamp is very familiar with the first-year signal-caller after recruiting him and offering him a scholarship.
"He’s got arm talent; he had all kinds of records there in high school," he said. "He's a guy that's got the ability to run the ball. He's a competitor. He's a battler. He can make all the throws — the touch throws, he can zip it. We've got a lot of respect for Sam."
5. Will They Open Up The Playbook?
South Carolina unveiled its own up-tempo offense last season under new offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon and it paid immediate dividends as the Gamecocks averaged 30 points and 424 yards per game. But McClendon said he only used about half of the playbook last season.
He plans to open it up this season.
“We had to hold back some,” he said. “You never really see a first-year system go in there and kinda get to rolling. I wanted to kinda implement a bunch of good things that we thought could help the guys and put those guys in position to be successful, and that’s what we did.
“We were able to implement a lot more of that this spring.”
The Gamecocks should have an explosive offense again. Bentley, a four-year starter, has plenty of weapons in the passing game and Feaster, also a strong pass-catcher, should boost the running game. The key will be reducing turnovers and executing better in the red zone, where the Gamecocks scored touchdowns on only 57 percent of their possessions last year.
“First of all, [we need to] take care of the ball and understand the importance of that,” said Bentley, who threw 14 interceptions last year. “And, secondly, the explosive plays and wanting to make plays and just have fun doing it. The last time out we didn’t have a lot of fun because we weren’t making plays. We need to go back out there and start having fun again.”
6. Where Will Joyner Play?
Redshirt freshman Dakereon Joyner did not win the backup quarterback job, but he may wind up seeing the field more than backup Ryan Hilinski.
The Gamecocks are working to get the multi-talented Joyner on the field in some capacity and make him a part of the offense. Muschamp said Tuesday that Joyner “absolutely” will play, but declined to say where. “You’ll find out on Saturday,” he said.
It will be interesting to see how the Gamecocks use Joyner. Will he be a slot receiver, or line up in the backfield? Will he run the jet sweep like Deebo Samuel? And will there be some trick plays taking advantage of his passing ability?
UPDATE: Sure enough, when the Gamecocks took the field for pre-game warmups at Bank of America Stadium, Joyner was wearing gloves and working with the wide receivers.
No matter how he touches the ball, Joyner should add another dynamic to the offense.
7. Which Freshmen Will Play?
Surprisingly, there were freshmen all over the latest depth chart when it was released this week. True freshmen Jakai Moore and Vincent Murphy are listed as backup offensive linemen, while freshman Keyshawn Toney is the backup tight end. And wide receiver Xavier Legette, one of the most impressive young players in training camp, will also see time, Muschamp said.
On defense, linebacker Jahmar Brown my start at strong-side linebacker, while freshman Jammie Robinson is listed as the starter at nickel and as a key backup at safety. Pickens, Muschamp’s first five-star signee, is expected to play on the defensive line, while three other freshmen — John Dixon, Cam Smith, Shiloh Sanders — could see time in the secondary.
Which of the freshmen will get the most playing time and make the biggest impact?