HOOVER —South Carolina brings back almost all its offensive firepower from last year’s Birmingham Bowl team. The Gamecocks return 10 starters on that side of the ball, including its quarterback, two leading rushers and top two wide receivers.
Jake Bentley returns for his sophomore season. He started the last seven games of the 2016 season, passing for 1,420-yards. He also threw for nine touchdowns in his first season as a Gamecock.
“When he came in he brought a charge (to our offense),” head coach Will Muschamp said.
Bentley’s favorite targets both return next year for their junior seasons. The combination of Deebo Samuel and Hayden Hurst compiled 1,399 yards last season.
Rico Dowdle also returns for his sophomore season. Dowdle led the team in rushing with 764 yards and six touchdowns.
South Carolina only has 11 seniors, so the roster is still young. Seventy percent of the roster is still underclassmen.
“It’s an exciting time to be a Gamecock,” Muschamp said.
The defense has a big question mark on it going into the 2017 season. South Carolina allowed 133 total points in its last three games, finishing 1-2 in that stretch. The defense returns six starters, all seniors.
D.J. Smith returns as the leading tackler. He finished with a team-leading 80 tackles and intercepted a pass.
Muschamp finished his first season as the long-term replacement for Steve Spurrier, who retired during the 2015 season, with a 6-6 record before losing to South Florida in the bowl game.
Two of the biggest problems that the Gamecocks face are playing on the road and playing ranked opponents. South Carolina finished 1-4 on the road. All but one of the losses were by multiple touchdowns, including a 56-7 loss at Clemson. Its only road win was against Vanderbilt, which was the first game of the season. Gamecocks finished 1-4 against the top 25. The only win was against Tennessee.
South Carolina hosts North Carolina State on Sept. 2.
Head coach: Will Muschamp
2016 record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)
Returning starters: 16
Toughest question Muschamp faced: Will, expounding on Jake, what is the biggest thing maybe in your experience with sophomore quarterbacks that you see them improve on from their freshman year to their sophomore year?
Muschamp’s reply: Understanding how to be a quarterback as far as the film room is concerned, total understanding of the offense, protections, blocking schemes upfront, identifying defenses. All of those things are the next step. As a guy coming in in August, it’s like drinking water out of a firehose. We’re moving fast. The installation, we’re going to install this day. You know what we’re going to do tomorrow? We’re going to install again. The next day, we’re going to install again. The defense continues to install. All of a sudden, Coach Muschamp puts in three down on day five. That changes the whole ball game as far as protections and run game is concerned. To be able to sit down and digest offensively what we do and identifying defenses to me is the biggest step mentally.
You need to know: Will Muschamp had the challenge of replacing Steve Spurrier as the head coach. South Carolina returns almost all its offense, including sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley. Bentley took won the starting job during the season and started the last seven games throwing for 1,420-yards and nine touchdowns, while going 4-3. The Gamecocks also return its starting running back from last year. Rico Dowdle rushed for 764-yards in his freshman season.
Best player quote: “I don’t think leadership is something you learn, it’s more you’re born to be a leader, whether or not you’re supposed to be a vocal leader. I just go there to work every day, and I’ve always been taught to expect the best from everyone and for everyone to expect the best out of me. Guys see me work as hard as I can, and I see the same thing out of them.” Sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley said on being a leader as a sophomore.