Will Muschamp likes to boast that he plays more freshmen than anyone in the country.
That was never more evident than on Saturday night, when at least nine freshmen played key roles in South Carolina’s 24-7 win over Vanderbilt.
Freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski had one of his best games, shaking off a tough performance at Tennessee last week to complete 24 of 31 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. Backup quarterback Dakereon Joyner, a redshirt freshman, also got his most extensive playing time, rotating with Hilinski and rushing for nine yards.
Redshirt freshman Deshaun Fenwick played for the first time this season and led the Gamecocks with 102 yards rushing on 18 carries. Freshman running back Kevin Harris added 20 yards rushing and scored his fourth touchdown of the season.
Freshman wide receiver Xavier Legette saw extensive playing time with Shi Smith out and Josh Vann suffering a broken hand in the game. He had three catches for 34 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown reception to tie the game in the second quarter.
Freshman Jakai Moore started at right tackle, replacing injured freshman Jaylin Nichols, who had been starting at that spot. He played beside guard Jovaughn Gwyn, a redshirt freshman who has started since week two.
On defense, Jammie Robinson had six tackles at safety, while Zacch Pickens contributed on the defensive line as the Gamecocks held Vanderbilt to just 189 yards of total offense.
“There is a lot of youth on the field right now, but I think we handled the situation well,” Muschamp said.
Fenwick, who had more than 100 yards rushing in his only appearance last year, was discouraged and considered transferring early this season. But with senior Rico Dowdle out with a knee injury and Tavien Feaster battling a groin injury, he got his chance Saturday night and delivered.
“You always have to be ready when your number is called,” Muschamp said. “I told him you just need to stick it out. … Sometimes you have to stick with it, you can’t just take your ball and go home. He stuck it out.
“Great example of a guy who stuck around and continued to work and he played well. He handled adversity and fought it, it’s really neat.”
With Smith, who had 11 catches for 156 yards last week, out, Legette also got his chance and hauled in a touchdown pass from Hilinski on his first reception.
“Xavier was key contributor for us. He’s going to be a really good football player,” Muschamp said.
Though Joyner did not put up big numbers on the stat sheet, he ran the offense efficiently and gave the Vanderbilt defense a different look, helping open up holes in the running game and opportunities in the passing game.
“We’re going to continue to use him,” Muschamp said. “The last two weeks he hasn’t been healthy enough. … We have to continue to expand Dakereon’s package. We’ll continue to do that moving forward.”
Muschamp said the contributions of his freshmen and redshirt freshmen was a testament to the success his program has had recruiting the past two years.
“We really like the guys we have recruited,” he said. “We have played more freshmen than anybody in the country in four years and started more in four years. We love to play guys that are good enough to play and get on the field. If you produce for us, you play.”