When the South Carolina football team returned to practice this week, they had a new coach on the sideline.
Tight end Kiel Pollard, who retired from football last week after doctors discovered a cyst on his spinal cord, has been added to the coaching staff and is getting acclimated to his new role on the team.
Asked about “Coach Pollard” Tuesday, offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon said he’s doing well — once he adapted to a coach’s schedule.
“I reached out to him so he came and saw me and we are getting together a schedule for exactly how he is going to help. His first question was, ‘Coach, I got to be up here that late?’” McClendon said. “I said, ‘Yeah, if you want to coach.’
“He’s a kid who hard work has never been an issue fo rhim. Sharpe, bright, really good spirits. He’s going to make a heck of a coach so we are going to do everything we can do to utitilize him while we have him.”
Pollard, who has played in 38 games over the past three years, was expected to have a big senior season until going down with a neck injury last week. He was initially expected to be out four to six weeks with a fracture in his neck, but when doctors discovered a cyst on his spine he decided to retire from football.
He is scheduled to graduate in December and wants to coach so head coach Will Muschamp decided to add him to his staff.
“He'll be successful in whatever he does. He's extremely bright. He relates well with anybody he meets. He's got that certain skill with people,” Muschamp said.
Muschamp also made the move as a message of loyalty to his team.
“This guy has handled his business the right way. He's graduating, and getting your education is why you are here,” he said. “Unfortunately in our game, we all have expiration dates. Probably one percent of us all that play football, it ends on your terms. … It certainly ended too soon for Kiel. We love him and just hate for this to happen to him. He's going to have some tough times in the fall and we all need to support him, and we will."
Pollard has already been an inspiration to his teammates.
“Kiel is going to be part of this team all year. He’s going to be locked in and he’s going to be Coach Kiel, and we will need him,” quarterback Jake Bentley said. “He’s bringing the same energy as when he was out there.”
Pollard’s biggest role will be helping coach a tight end group that is thin and inexperienced without its senior leader. South Carolina also will be without tight end Evan Hinson, who was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat, for a few more weeks.
The Gamecocks are evaluating who will fill Pollard’s role and how the offense might change without their big-play threat at tight end.
Fourth-year junior Kyle Markway will likely be the starter, and the Gamecocks hope to have newcomer Nick Muse, a William & Mary transfer who has requested an NCAA waiver to be eligible to play this season. Markway has just six career receptions, but made a couple of big catches last season — one on the game-winning drive vs. Missouri, and his first career TD catch at Florida.
“Kyle has played a ton of football and made a bunch of big plays for us,” Bentley said. “He’s going to be that solid rock for us going forward.”
Muschamp and tight ends coach Bobby Bentley love Markway’s leadership and the example he sets for other players.
“He’s a great person. He’s kind of that Marcus Lattimore type. He makes everybody around him better,” Bobby Bentley said. “He’s a no-excuse guy and when he makes a mistake he has no traffic report. He doesn’t have any type of excuse on what he did wrong. He just says, ‘Coach, I’ll do better.’”
Muse is an athletic tight end who had 30 receptions and averaged 64.7 yards per game for William & Mary last year. Bentley and the coaching staff are anxious to get him on the field in game action.
“He’s a guy who can really be a dominant in-line player with his size and athleticism. … Yet he can still flex out and do somethings on the perimeter that you’d like to do too,” Bobby Bently said. “ … He’s probably one of the alpha males in the room. He stands out. He’s a leader. He is really going to be special.”
Muse may come closest to replacing Pollard’s skill set and athleticism.
“He’s similar to Kiel, a really good route runner and able to get open,” Jake Bentley said. “Really attacks the ball well and has really great ball skills and is able to stretch the defense from the tight end position.”
Pollard’s injury also may pave the way for other players to get onto the field. Offensive lineman Chandler Farrell has moved to a tight end/H-back role, while freshmen Will Register, Keshawn Toney and Traevon Kenion are also in the mix.
“I really think a lot of tight ends are going to get a lot of playing time this year,” Jake Bentley said. “They have to be ready to help us.”