South Carolina wound up using several freshmen last season, including six who started games and who play even bigger roles this season.
Could this year’s freshman class have just as big an impact?
There are several who have flashed in training camp and look they could play significant roles this year.
Here’s six who could be a factor.
Pickens, Muschamp’s first five-star recruit at South Carolina, was the most talked about and highly regarded freshman in the spring and entering training camp and he appears to be fulfilling those high expectations.
“He’s going to be a good player,” senior defensive end D.J. Wonnum said. “He’s just getting used to college football, but he is going to be a good player. He has the size and strength and speed. I’m pretty sure he’s going to do some big things for us this year. The sky’s the limit for him.”
Defensive line coach John Scott Jr. concurs. He says Pickens, 6-3 and 300 pounds, has the size and strength of a junior instead of a true freshman.
“He’s got like a junior body right now as a freshman, so that certainly helps,” he said. “For him, it’s just developing the mental part, and that’s coming. I feel like he’s doing a good job with that. Now it’s just getting the technique down and playing fast all the time. I think he’s got a chance to really help us this year. We have to keep him coming on.”
Pickens is expected to be in the rotation at defensive tackle along with Javon Kinlaw, Kobe Smith, Rick Sandidge, Keir Thomas and others.
WR Xavier Legette
Leggette, a high school quarterback, was one of the most versatile players in the state as a senior, rushing for 1,826 and 19 touchdowns and passing for 887 yards and 14 scores. Now he’s flashing that athleticism as a Gamecock wide receiver.
Quarterback Jake Bentley said Leggette has been one of the biggest surprises in training camp.
“When he got here this summer, we saw he had flashes of being pretty good, but to come in and make plays and make plays on the ball, he’s looked really good,” he said.
Backup quarterback Dakereon Joyner said Legette, a 6-0, 205-pound receiver, is one of the fastest players on the team and can catch the ball.
“He has an eye for the ball, he can go attack the ball,” he said.
Cornerback Jaycee Horn has also been impressed. “He’s out there running crisp routes, has good hands and he’s real fast,” he said.
Keveon Mullins, who looks more like a running back at 6-1, 200 pounds, is another freshman receiver who has also shown flashes. Bentley sees both he and Legette becoming stars one day.
“Two guys that came in and picked up the offense very well,” he said. “Really showing flashes that they can be really great one day.”
Muschamp has seen some positive signs from Hilinski and Dakereon Joyner, who are battling for the backup quarterback job. But he was not ready to annoint a backup after the first preseason scrimmage last week. Saturday’s second and final scrimmage will be big for both freshmen.
“I’ve seen some very positive things from both guys and the mistakes being made are both from young players,” he said. “That's to be expected, but at a certain point we also have to push forward."
The two quarterbacks are drastically different. Hilinski, a high school All-American, was the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the country last year and appears to have the arm strength and skill set to run South Carolina’s up-tempo offense. Joyner, a redshirt freshman, is more of a runner who has had to work on his passing skills and his made progress throughout the offseason.
Quarterbacks coach Dan Werner has been impressed with Hilinski’s development.
“I think he’s coming along great for a guy who just stepped on campus less than a year ago and they are battling. I’m proud of him,” he said.
Hilinski’s biggest challenge, he said, has been the normal adjustment to college football. His main focus has been getting bigger and stronger and learning the offense.
“First of all, he has changed his body,” Werner said. “Coming out of high school, he probably didn’t lift a whole lot compared to what he is doing here. He has lost weight and gained a lot of muscle mass. Football-wise, you can tell he has a much better grasp. He knows it inside and out, just like the other guys do.
“For a younger guy, its always translating from the meeting room to the field, and I’ve been very pleased with how that has happened.”
The first thing that jumps out to you about Harris is his size (5-10, 225) and strength. He showed in the Garnet & Black Spring game he could take advantage of both, gaining tough yards and moving the pile in the running game.
Running backs coach Thomas Brown says that strength is for real.
“He’s kind of a workout warrior. He makes those guys work out harder,” he said. “You talk about a guy that’s squatted over 600 pounds and has a 40-inch vertical. Those are really impressive numbers.
“I’m trying to work with him to make sure that’s functional strength and not just weight-room stuff. Make sure it transfers to the football field. So far he’s doing really well. I think he’s taking it one day at a time and has the right approach to it and is working his butt off. I expect big things from him in the future.”
Harris rushed for more than 4,100 yards and 42 touchdowns in his career at Bradwell Institute in Hinesville, Ga. and Brown calls him a “super talented young player and a really smart football player.”
South Carolina is deep at running back with the addition of Tavien Feaster. The Clemson transfer will battle seniors Rico Dowdle, Mon Denson and possibly A.J. Turner for carries, though Harris and redshirt freshman Deshaun Fenwick could work their way into the mix.
Muschamp likes what he’s seen so far from Harris and thinks he can contribute this season.
“He had a really good summer and he has changed his body,” he said after the team’s first scrimmage. “He has gotten rid of some of the excess weight that he needed to get rid of and his body looks different. I thought he ran hard today; I’m interested to watch the film to see what kind of cuts he made.
“He’s a guy who can help us on [special] teams and provide us some depth at the running back position. “
There are four freshman defensive backs on the roster, but the one that has stood out in training camp is safety Jammie Robinson, who is challenging for playing time and has gotten some first-team reps at nickel.
Robinson was the Defensive Player of the Year in Georgia last year with more than 100 tackles and seven returns (punt, kickoff and interception) for touchdowns.
Among the four — Cam Smith, Shilo Sanders and John Nixon are the others — Robinson is the one we’ve heard the most about in training camp.
“He’s really competitive,” nickel/linebacker coach Kyle Krantz said. “He’s got heavy hands. He can cover and he’s smart. He’s shown the ability to learn nickel and safety, and that’s a good skill to have in our defense.”
Jamyest Williams, a junior who also started as a freshman, is competing with Robinson at both positions and has been impressed with the first-year player. He likes his physicality and instincts.
“He has a pretty good skill set, is smart and has good instincts,” he said. “He still has learning to do, but he has stepped up and is trying to play that role. We sit and talk and watch film a lot. That’s my little bro.”
LB Rodricus Fitten
South Carolina is deep at the BUCK and SAM linebacker spots, but the one freshman who has stood out is Fitten, a 6-1, 245 freshman from Atlanta.
A defensive end and linebacker in high school, he has drawn comparisons to three-year starter Bryson Allen-Williams, who graduated last year.
“That’s a good one to compare him to,” BUCK/linebacker coach Mike Peterson said. “Right now he’s probably running the wrong way, but that’s my job [to correct]. That’s why I’m here, to get him running in the right direction.
“But give me a guy that plays with a motor over a talented guy any day.”
Fitten’s high-energy game has earned him the nickname “Hot Rod.”
“The thing I like about him, and I saw it in recruiting, he’s plays with a lot of energy,” Peterson said. “The thing now is try to shorten the learning curve for him and getting him on the right page as far as terminology and the way we do things.
“But the effort is the one thing I really like about him. I loved it in recruiting and he’s showing that out there now. He’s ripped up. He’s looking good.”