(Part 11 of a 14-part SEC preview series)
South Carolina is banking on improvement from a seasoned offense in an effort to avoid a third straight losing season.
Ten starters return from a punchless offense which ranked 116th in the nation and dead last in the Southeastern Conference with 20.8 points per game. South Carolina ranked 108th in rushing (134.4 yards per game), 83rd in passing (213.2 ypg) and 115th in total offense (347.6 ypg).
A lopsided 56-7 loss to in-state rival and eventual national champion Clemson in the regular season finale and a 46-39 overtime loss to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl sealed the Gamecocks' 6-7, 3-5 campaign under then first-year head coach Will Muschamp.
Starting seven games as a true freshman, Jake Bentley completed 125-of-190 passes for 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Keeping Bentley healthy is a key as he is the only quarterback on the roster to have taken a snap at the collegiate level.
South Carolina's running game should be more effective this season. Besides returning its top two backs in Rico Dowdle (133 carries, 781 yards, 6 TDs) and A.J. Turner (116-497-3; 21 receptions, 143 yards, 1 TD), North Carolina transfer Ty'Son Williams has entered the mix. All three are sophomores.
Seven of the top eight receivers are back, including versatile junior Deebo Samuel, who ranked second in the SEC in all purpose yards (132 ypg). Samuel caught 59 passes for 783 yards and a touchdown, rushed 15 times for 98 yards and six scores and returned 16 kickoffs for 26.8 yards and a TD.
Junior Bryan Edwards (44-590-4) complements Samuel in the receiving brigade. Randrecous Davis, who has petitioned for a medical redshirt after appearing in only two games last season, is another promising option in the passing game.
Bentley also has a pair of capable tight ends at his disposal in juniors Hayden Hurst (48-616-1) and K.C. Crosby (23-217-4). A former right-handed pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization, Hurst set school records for receptions and receiving yards by a tight end.
Junior Zack Bailey, who has appeared in every game over the past two years (18 starts), is the ring leader of the offensive line. Bailey moved from left guard to right tackle in the spring, while junior left tackle Malik Young switched to left tackle after drawing nine starts at right tackle. Seniors Alan Knott and Cory Helms remain at right guard and center, respectively. Junior Donell Stanley is the new starter at left guard. Stanley started the 2016 season opener against Vanderbilt only to have his season end prematurely due to a high ankle sprain.
Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson has some holes to fill following the loss of five starters from a unit which finished in the middle of the pack in most SEC statistical categories. South Carolina ranked eighth in the conference in scoring (26.5 ppg), ninth in rushing (203.2 ypg), sixth in passing (208.7 ypg) and seventh in total defense (411.9 ypg).
Robinson's task will be easier if senior linebacker Skai Moore returns to form after missing the entire 2016 season while recovering from neck surgery. Moore has a chance to become just the 14th player in NCAA Division I history to lead his team in tackles for four seasons. A second-team All-SEC honoree in 2015, Moore was MVP of the Gamecocks' 24-21 2014 Independence Bowl victory over Miami. His career totals include 260 tackles and 11 interceptions.
Senior Bryson Allen-Williams (75 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks), the team's second-leading tackler, and junior Rashad Fenton (38 tackles, 1 INT) join Moore in the linebacker corps.
Seniors Ulric Jones (42 tackles) and Taylor Stallworth (41 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack) return at the tackles. Both ends — senior Dante Sawyer (25 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack) and sophomore D.J. Wonnum (32 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack) are newcomers to the starting front.
Last year's leading tackler, senior safety D.J. Smith (80 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 2 fumble recoveries), heads up a capable secondary. True freshman Jaylin Dickerson rose to the top of the depth chart at the other safety spot in the spring. Seniors JaMarcus King (56 tackles, 3 INTs, 9 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles) and Chris Lammons (53 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 INTs, 2 FF) are established playmakers at the corners.
The kicking game is an area of concern following the losses of Elliott Fry, who graduated as the school's career scoring leader, punter Sean Kelly and four-year long snapper Drew Williams.
2017 SOUTH CAROLINA SCHEDULE
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 vs. North Carolina State (at Charlotte) 2 p.m.
Sept. 9 at Missouri* 6 p.m.
Sept. 16 Kentucky* TBA
Sept. 23 Louisiana Tech TBA
Sept. 30 at Texas A&M* TBA
Oct. 7 Arkansas* TBA
Oct. 14 at Tennessee* TBA
Oct. 28 Vanderbilt* TBA
Nov. 4 at Georgia* TBA
Nov. 11 Florida* TBA
Nov. 18 Wofford TBA
Nov. 25 Clemson TBA