By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
South Carolina begins perhaps the most important part of its football season Monday morning when training camp for the 2017 season starts at 9 a.m.
Head coach Will Muschamp and his staff have already scripted the first 11 practices of camp, culminating with an Aug. 12 scrimmage at Williams-Brice Stadium. It will be a physical and mental grind, designed to find out who is ready to play and contribute in 2017 and who is not.
Muschamp had a message for his 13 seniors Sunday to set the tone for training camp.
"Championship teams that I have been a part of embrace camp," Muschamp said. "They understood that we are going to practice no matter what and the schedule is not changing. So embrace that part of the camp, embrace the grind and embrace the toughness of what we have to go through.
"The average teams I have been a part of bitched about camp, and that's the bottom line."
Toughness and physicality will be a major focus of Muschamp's second camp as he team works toward improving on last year's 6-7 season. His staff pushed his players to get bigger and stronger during the offseason — something Muschamp believes they have done.
Now it's time to make them tougher and more physical. And that toughness, he said, is not just confined to the big men up front on the offensive and defensive lines.
"Guys have to understand that toughness to me comes down to the ability to run the ball against good people and the ability to stop the run against good people, and it's not just about the line of scrimmage," Muschamp said during South Carolina Media Day Sunday. "With the way teams are blocking offensively, the ball is going to be on the perimeter and you've got to be tough in the secondary, you've got to be tough at the corner position, you've got to be tough at the safety and the nickel, you've to be tough at wideout to block down field and create explosive runs for your offense.
"It's an element of toughness that goes through all 11 guys. It's not just about both lines of scrimmage, and that's where we have to really challenge our guys to improve."
While the Gamecocks return 10 starters on offense, including starting quarterback Jake Bentley, the defense faces big questions. It needs depth on the defensive line and at linebacker, and Muschamp is looking for several in-coming freshmen to contribute immediately.
South Carolina gave up 26.5 points and 411.9 yards per game last season — 203.2 on the ground and 208.7 passing. Stopping the run is a major emphasis and Muschamp has challenged his defensive line to step up, particularly seniors Dante Sawyer, Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones.
"They need to play well for us to play well defensively," Muschamp said Sunday. "That's something we struggled consistently with, stopping the run against good teams. And in order to stop the run, you need to have your senior leaders step up and play well at the line of scrimmage."
Another area that will be a major emphasis on defense is tackling. Muschamp delivered the line of the day Sunday when assessing the tackling of his 2016 defense.
"We had a little bit of a Southern Bell defense last year — reach out and touch someone," he said. "We need to continue be more physical in our organization."
Tackling and being more physical, he said, applies to every area of the defense, particularly the linebackers and secondary, which missed way too many open-field tackles last year.
"A lot of tackling has to do with want-to," Muschamp said. "A guy has got to want to do it, and that's part of the recruiting process and the evaluation process. You evaluate the guys who really enjoy the physicality of the game, and with this freshman class coming in, that was a huge part of the evaluation process, guys who enjoy sticking their face in there and tackling."
Perhaps the most important challenge defensively will be finding depth. Depth to back up the senior defensive linemen, and depth to back up a linebacker group that featured just three players in the spring.
"We are thin in some areas, especially the front seven defensively," Muschamp said. "We can't afford an injury there. We have to continue to recruit for depth. As a defensive lineman, if you want to play early, come to South Carolina, there is an opportunity for you, I can assure you of that."
NOTES: WR Kory Banks has been moved to defense as a cornerback. He will wear No. 23 … A handful of players, including left tackle Malik Young and running back Caleb Kinlaw, will miss the first week of practice while finishing summer school.
INJURIES: Freshman DB Jaylin Dickerson has a nerve strain in his shoulder and will be under non-contact status for the first week or so … TE K.C. Crosby had a scope on his torn meniscus last week and is day-to-day. … WR Randrecous Davis had fluid drained from his knee and should be cleared in three or four days. … OL Jordan Rhodes and DB Keisean Nixon have been cleared to practice, while OL Jordan Carty won't be available until the third or fourth week of camp.