It’s a bittersweet time for South Carolina football.
Not only are the Gamecocks reeling from a disappointing season-opening loss, but they lost starting quarterback Jake Bentley, a four-year starter and the emotional leader of the team. Though Bentley struggled in the 24-20 loss to North Carolina, he was expected to have a big senior season and on pace to break most of the school passing records.
Now he will miss an extended period of time, and maybe the whole season, with a broken foot.
Though things seem bleak entering the home-opener against Charleston Southern Saturday, there is also a buzz around the program as true freshman Ryan Hilinski will make his first career start and get a chance to show what he can do over the next several weeks. If all goes well, Gamecock fans could be looking at the future of the offense.
Hilinski was a four-star recruit and one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country last year, earning at least one national player of the year award. When he takes the field Saturday, it will be the most anticipated quarterback debut since Bentley’s first start as a true freshman in 2016.
Hilinski showed in the Garnet & Black Spring Game and throughout training camp that he can throw the football and run South Carolina’s offense.
“He’s really talented,” senior defensive end D.J. Wonnum said. “He’s got great arm talent. He’s good across the board.”
“He’s a confident guy. He can sling it,” linebacker T.J. Brunson said.
There’s plenty of reasons to be excited about Hilinski’s debut. But for him to succeed and flash his vast potential — especially against the SEC schedule that awaits after Charleston Southern — he will need plenty of help.
Here’s a look at five keys things his teammates must do to help him shine.
Protect, Protect, Protect
The revamped offensive line played poorly against North Carolina, a big reason for Bentley’s struggles. He was under pressure all day and took three sacks, including on the last play of the game when he is believed to have been injured. Much of the pressure came up the middle and the coaching made changes this week to address that.
Sixth-year senior and three-year starter Donell Stanley will move back to center, where he started 12 games last season. The center is crucial in South Carolina’s up-tempo offense, helping the quarterback read the defense and calling protections before the ball is snapped. Stanley and Bentley developed good chemistry last season and his move back to center should be a big plus and a calming influence for Hilinski.
Jordan Rhodes, a 330-pound sophomore, will make his first career start at left guard while 305-pound redshirt freshman Jovaughn Gwyn will make his first start at right guard. With Dylan Wonnum, who started seven games last year, at right tackle, the Gamecocks will have two sophomores and a freshman starting on the offensive line. Stanley and left tackle Sadarius Hutchers, a two-year starter, must provide leadership for the young trio.
Hilinski (6-3, 230) is not as mobile as Bentley so the line is going to have to protect him in the pocket. This year’s offensive line is supposed to be stronger and more athletic than last year’s group — that’s what we heard throughout training camp — and they are going to have to show it with an inexperienced quarterback behind them.
Run The Ball
The running game was a major emphasis throughout training camp and it looked good early against North Carolina. Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster were elusive and electric on the first two drives, with Feaster breaking loose for a 34-yard touchdown run.
But with the line struggling, the run game didn’t do much after that, finishing with just 128 yards rushing — 25 fewer than last year’s per game average.
The Gamecocks may need to lean on the run game until Hilinski gets comfortable, and it will be crucial in two weeks against No. 2 Alabama. They need to commit to establishing the run, stick with it and find ways to get Feaster and Dowdle in the open field.
A strong running game will take pressure off Hilinski, open up the passing game and give him time to get comfortable and gain confidence.
Catch The Football
South Carolina’s wide receivers also struggled against North Carolina. Senior Bryan Edwards, who is also on pace to break several school records, had just one catch for seven yards and dropped a key third-down pass in the red zone.
The Gamecocks also tried to throw the ball down the field several times, but head coach Will Muschamp said some receivers either ran the wrong route or broke off their routes. One of those mistakes contributed to one of Bentley’s fourth-quarter interceptions.
South Carolina has a deep and talented receiving corp and it can help Hilinski as much as anything. The Gamecocks have speed (Shi Smith), elusiveness (Smith, Josh Vann, Dakereon Joyner) and big targets (Edwards and OrTre Smith). But they have to get open and catch the ball for the freshman quarterback to succeed.
Hilinski has a quick release and excelled in the spring game at moving the ball down the field with short, quick passes to his receivers. That may be a good start and a way to help him find his rhythm before taking shots down the field.
The Gamecocks have numerous pass-catching playmakers, including Feaster and Dowdle out of the backfield. They need to help Hilinski by getting open, catching the ball and making plays in the open field.
Keep Developing Joyner
After losing the backup quarterback job to Hilinski, Joyner saw his first action last week at wide receiver and caught two passes. Now he’s the backup quarterback and a wide receiver.
Joyner is a dynamic player who can make plays in the open field and he proved last week that he can catch the ball. The Gamecocks need to continue finding ways to get the ball in his hands.
They also may need to get him some game action at quarterback as well. If, God forbid, Hilinski should go down too, then Joyner suddenly becomes the starter and will take over the offense. Getting him some time under center could give the offense a different look and help prepare him if he needs to move back to quarterback full time.
Defense Must Step Up
As much as the offense struggled against North Carolina, the defense was just as disappointing, blowing a 20-9 lead by giving up two long fourth-quarter scoring drives.
After a solid first half, the defense was plagued by missed tackles and mistakes in the secondary in the second half. Getting senior defensive backs A.J. Turner and J.T. Ibe back this week should help.
After struggling and being hampered by injuries last year, the defense was supposed to be much improved this season. But it gave up 483 yards of total offense to North Carolina, including seven explosive plays (20 yards or more) in the second half. It allowed more than 100 yards after contact due to poor tackling.
The defense has more depth, talent and experience than it has had in Muschamp’s first three seasons and shouldn’t be prone to such mistakes. Now, with a freshman quarterback leading the offense, it must step up and play well to take pressure off Hilinski and put him in position to succeed.
“We just need to help him out,” Brunson said. “I remember playing as a freshman and you definitely have a couple of nerves floating around but I am confident in him and we have a lot of guys who are confident in him. We just need to go out and play our game to help him out.”