Gamecock Nation does not need to be reminded how disappointing the 2019 football season was.
It’s hard to forget a 4-8 season that concluded with three straight losses, including an upset to Appalachian State and another loss to rival Clemson, and ended head coach Will Muschamp’s streak of three straight bowl games.
“The disappointment of last year sticks in your heart,” Muschamp said on April 6.
Though the Gamecocks have gone 11-14 in the past two seasons, Muschamp insists his program is headed in the right direction.
“Obviously we didn’t have the season we wanted to have … [but] I feel really good about where we are,” he said.
Three weeks later, Gamecock Nation witnessed one reason for Muschamp's optimism. Four South Carolina players were selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, the most in the Muschamp era and the most since Steve Spurrier’s last season in 2015. Five more were immediately offered free-agent contracts and invited to NFL camps.
Three of the four draftees were part of Muschamp’s first signing class, including linebacker T.J. Brunson and receiver Bryan Edwards, the first two players he recruited after being named South Carolina’s new head coach. Muschamp was spot on in his evaluation of both players.
Edwards, a four-year starter, became South Carolina’s all-time leading receiver and was a third-round pick by the Las Vegas Raiders. It is widely believed he would have been taken even higher had he not suffered a knee injury that ended in his final season early and a foot injury that prevented him from participating in the NFL Combine and pre-draft workouts.
Brunson was a three-year starter, South Carolina’s leading tackler during that span and a seventh-round pick by the New York Giants, a team that knows a thing or two about linebackers. Though seventh-round picks are often longshots, it would be no surprise if the determined Brunson stuck with the Giants or hooked on with another team.
The third player drafted from the 2016 class was defensive end D.J. Wonnum, a three-year starter who drew praise throughout his career for not only his play on the field but for his work ethic and leadership off it. An edge rusher and versatile defender, Wonnum was a fourth-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings. After battling back from an ankle injury that ruined his junior season, he displayed the commitment it takes to stick in the NFL.
The selection of all three players was evidence of Muschamp’s ability to spot and recruit talented players and help them develop their potential. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the development of first-round pick Javon Kinlaw.
A giant defensive tackle with the strength and athleticism to wreak havoc on the line of scrimmage, Kinlaw was a 2016 recruit by Spurrier. But Muschamp wisely sent him to a Mississippi junior college, where he would develop and mature as both a football player, a student and a man.
When Kinlaw arrived in Columbia, he weighed nearly 360 pounds and was far from being in football shape. But in just two years, Muschamp and his staff sculpted him into a 6-6, 310-pound beast that dominated the SEC in his final season and emerged as a first-team All-American and first-round pick.
Kinlaw was taken 14th overall by San Francisco, South Carolina’s highest drafted player since Jadeveon Clowney was taken No. 1 overall in 2014. He was the ninth top-15 pick in South Carolina history and Muschamp’s second first-round pick in three years.
Muschamp’s ability to mold and develop Kinlaw into one of the top players in the country and one of the most coveted players in the 2020 draft says a lot about his ability to not only recognize potential but to help players reach it.
Gamecock fans should be just as happy for the five players who were offered free-agent contracts. All five are players who made significant contributions for South Carolina throughout their college careers and earned an opportunity to play at the next level.
Donell Stanley was a sixth-year senior and three-year starter who meant as much to South Carolina in terms of leadership as he did to an improving offensive line. Rico Dowdle was a four-year starter who burst onto the scene as a freshman and produced some big games and big moments throughout an injury-riddled career. Tavien Feaster played just one year at South Carolina after a three-year career at Clemson, but flashed his talent at times last season and led the Gamecocks in rushing despite missing two games with injuries and splitting carries with Dowdle.
Tight end Kyle Markway and defensive tackle Kobe Smith were examples of players who worked hard, paid their dues and emerged as starters and key contributors in their final seasons. Their work, loyalty and perseverance have paid off with an NFL opportunity.
Though last season was a major setback for Muschamp and South Carolina, his ability to recruit, develop and produce NFL prospects is evidence that the program has progressed over the past four seasons. It also bodes well for the future and the next group of players with pro football aspirations.