UNC Week | Five Things To Watch For In Tomorrow’s Season Opener

Friends, we have made it.

The long, unforgiving offseason has finally come to an end and now the reward for our perseverance is here: game day.

As a whole, the 2019 version of Will Muschamp’s team looks a bit different from the one that we saw play against Coastal Carolina in last year’s opener.

Losing key play makers such Deebo Samuel and Bryson Allen-Williams automatically changes things up.

But, with some solid depth at the skill positions, a new influx of young talent, and a senior signal caller, there’s a lot to like about this version of the Gamecocks.

Coach Muschamp went as far as to call it his best team.

That’s bold praise for a coach that will face the nation’s toughest schedule, but maybe, just maybe, he means it.

So, with “talking season” finally coming to an end, it’s time to see the real product on the field.

To help prepare all the Gamecock faithful for the opener, here’s five things fans should keep an eye on in tomorrow’s season opener:

Has Bentley taken that “next step”?

In his 3 years as the starting quarterback, Jake Bentley has resembled a Katy Perry song with the way that he’s been “hot” then “cold”.

When he was hot, he was absolutely on fire (remember him lighting up that so-called invincible Clemson defense last year?) but when he was cold, he was frigid (I’m still trying to block out that Virginia game).

Bentley’s inconsistency is a great source of frustration because of how good is potential really is.

Some think that if he does takes that next step in his progression he could compete with Tua as the best in the conference, but that has yet to materialize on the field.

From what we are hearing, Bentley’s offseason was productive and he’s feeling as confident as he’s ever been.

That’s good news, but is it just offseason talk?

While early games don’t often display the most polished product— case in point, Trevor Lawrence’s shaky 2-interception performance last night— if Bentley has taking that leap in progression there should be clear signs in Saturday’s game.

Look to see if his reads are solid, his passes are accurate, and his decision making is sound.

If early mistakes do happen, it will be interesting to see if the senior takes it in stride, making the necessary adjustments, or if he instead regresses back into the same pattern of inconsistency.

If Bentley shows those signs of improvement, Carolina could be in for a surprising season.

If, however, he shows more of the same, don’t worry about postseason plans, because the Gamecocks won’t go bowling.

Which back makes the greatest impact?

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The initial depth chart has 3 co-starters listed at running back, and fans hate that dreaded “or” in-between the names.

While it is a positive thing that Carolina has 3 capable backs, the air of uncertainty doesn’t promote feelings of confidence in a positon that has been a sore spot for years.

When Tavien Feaster joined the team, many assumed that due to his elite ability, it would only be a matter of time before he secured the starting role.

Limitations in camp may have contributed to why a starter hasn’t been named officially, but an improved Rico Dowdle also plays a role in that decision.

From what has been mentioned, Dowdle has had his best camp yet.

It appears that the competitive depth at the positon has motivated him to the point of vast improvement, and a share of the starting role.

And so, we as fans, are left wondering which RB will come into the game first.

I’m as curious as anyone, but to be honest, I think that is perhaps the least important question in regards to the rushing attack.

Instead, the thing to watch for is which running back will make the biggest impact on the field.

Look to see who gets hot early.

My assumption is that the one who shows the most during their time in the game will be named starter for the next game, and from there, separation could take place.

Will the offense start quick?

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One of the most frustrating things as a fan is starting slow offensively.

After dramatic build up and anxious anticipation to see the opening kick, it is absolutely mind numbing to have the offense immediately let the air out of the building with a quick 3-and-out.

With Deebo Samuel’s early game sparks long gone, there will be more pressure than ever on Bryan McClendon’s offense to start hot and stay hot.

With a schedule as brutal as the one Carolina will face, early possessions matter just as much as late ones.

Getting behind in games like Alabama, Georgia, A&M, and Clemson, will virtually be a death sentence.

To prepare for what is to come, Saturday’s game will be an appropriate time to prove that the days off sputtering around in the opening half is in the past.

Look to see how the offense attacks in the first quarter.

If they are productive, watch to see if they sustain it.

If they don’t start hot, hold your breath and cross your fingers that McClendon makes the right adjustments before Alabama comes to town.

How much better is the defense really?

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We keep hearing from everyone that the defense has improved. However, the real question is this: how much really?

Off-season camps are completely different than live game snaps. Defenses can look dominant in practice but when game day comes they suddenly become lost.

Take for example the 2014 Carolina opener against Texas A&M.

That defense was supposed to be part of a reload process, not a rebuild.

With high expectations for the season as a whole, Gamecock fans had a rude awakening when they realized that that defensive unit simply could not make a tackle.It was a sobering moment that proved that “coaches speak” does not always turn into on-the-field productivity.

With that being said, Saturday’s game will be a good indicator of how much of an improvement there is with this unit.

We expect the secondary to be loaded with talent. We know that the D-line is stacked with depth, and we hear some great things about the linebackers, especially Ernest Jones, but is this just “coaches speak”?

Or is there substance to it?

When our defense takes the field for the first time on Saturday, we should know in a hurry.

I think that we have all the keys to be formidable.

We may even be dominant, but if we allow UNC— with its true freshman QB— to move the ball all over us, the rest of the season begins to look bleak.

Who is the next great Freshman?

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Freshmen depth is not always considered a good thing.

Typically being forced to utilize youth backfires because of the lack of experience. From time to time though, a first-year player can adjust to the speed of the collegiate game and make a name for himself.

Last year, Jaycee Horn was that freshman superstar, and while we expect his sophomore season to be even better, the focus now turns to the next rotation of new-comers.

The early depth chart, as well as some comments from camp, has indicated that several freshmen will be used in the opener.

Jammie Robinson has won the starting nickel position and John Dixon has made the 2-deep chart at corner.

Watch for both of these talented young men to make an immediate difference.

Besides those two, perhaps the name that fans are most excited to see play is five star signee and true freshman Zacch Pickens.

The coaching staff had great things to say about his development in camp, and with him getting a co-backup position behind Javon Kinlaw, expect to see him contribute heavily.

The other name that sparks interest is first-year QB Ryan Hillinksi.

As the backup, he will only see meaningful time if things go either horribly wrong or wonderfully right.

While we want to see what he’s made of, let’s hope that we only see him come in during garbage-time after a Gamecock blow-out.

With so many young contributors, there will be a lot to look for.

If I had to put money on the next big thing, I would say that Pickens’ natural ability from the line gives him an edge, but certainly keep an eye on Jammie Robinson, because starting immediately suggests that the kid has some great potential.

One thought

  1. Your bit about “How much better is the defense really?” – you refer to the Texas A&M game in 2014, about how the defense was supposed to be a reload, not a rebuild, and Gamecock fans were in for a rude awakening. Well, you must have not paid a lot of attention to Gamecock football back then. The 2014 off-season was when I transitioned from diehard Steve Spurrier loyalist, to sadly realizing that Spurrier was going to end up screwing USC in the end, like most other former FB head coaches always screwed our FB program.

    Because the 2014 off-season was when this news came out from Josh Kendall at The State:

    https://www.thestate.com/sports/college/university-of-south-carolina/usc-football/article18178877.html

    And referenced by Barrett Sallee of the Bleacher Report:

    https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1984646-south-carolina-implementing-more-of-a-3-4-defense-would-be-good-move

    This was news that our DC Lorenzo Ward was saying that the Gamecock defense was going to go to a more 3-4 base formation. The Gamecocks under Ward and his predecessor Ellis Johnson had always been a 4-3. Under Johnson’s first year as DC, they were a 3-4 with Eric Norwood as a DE and freshman Cliff Matthews as a OLB. This was the carry-over from the previous DC, Tyrone Nix. Johnson in his 2nd year, switched Norwood and Matthews to each other’s previous positions, and hired an assistant coach away from Arkansas, who had a long history as a DB coach under Frank Beamer and Bud Foster. VT essentially turned the 4-3, or the 4-2-5 with the LB/Safety hybrid. At VT the hybrid was called a “Rover” – at USC it was called the “Spur”.

    Essentially, Ward only knew the 4-3, as a coach. His defensive staff that coached under him knew the 4-3 base. His player personnel were recruited for the 4-3 as the base. Sure, they gave some 3-4 and 3-3-5 looks depending on the opposing offense, but that was mainly to keep those offenses honest. Going to a 3-4 was essentially a major concession.

    This is why it turned my opinion regarding Spurrier: It was right after 2013, the 3rd straight year the team won 11 games, and finished in the top 10 final rankings. In fact, 2013 finished in the top 4 final rankings. The program was 3 wins shy of making the SECCG four straight years (only Florida has done that in the history of the game, appearing in the first 5 games, winning the final 4). 3 wins shy of appearing in 3 straight BCS bowls. The program was on a precipice….

    But the staff had done such a poor job of going out and replenishing the DL depth, that they found themselves in such dire straits that a career 4-3 coach was going to have to go to a 3-4 defensive scheme, because he had a ton of LBs but few DEs?? That was a cannon blast across the CFB landscape, in my mind then. And why would they struggle to recruit the talent? Yes, the in-state talent pool had given some elite players to Ward and Johnson over the recent years: Clowney, Quarles, Matthews, Taylor, etc. But while that should possibly be an obstacle for a Gamecock program that fought hard to reach bowl-eligibility, it shouldn’t have been much of a hindrance for a perennially top 10 national program. IF the staff actually went out and tried to recruit.

    IF the staff actually went out and tried to recruit.

    So, again – in my mind, the fact that we hadn’t done that, soured on my opinion regarding the Gamecock staff. And what happened in 2014 was pretty much on the wall. Ward never fixed the problem – if anything, things got worse on defense, and he was gone. But by then Spurrier was gone too. And the program is only now starting to climb itself out of the hole that was dug for it. We still got a ways to dig.

    The depth has gotten stronger, and deeper. Last season, the defense was a shell of itself by the end of the season. It’s no wonder we lost to Virginia 28-0. In August/September of 2018, the USC defense allowed 23.5 ppg and 330.5 ypg, in October they allowed 28.3 ppg and 433.0 ypg, and in November they allowed 36.0 ppg and 555.5 ypg(!!!) They just crumbled like a house of cards from all their injuries, the back-and-forth shuffling of starting rosters with little time to gel as units, and the lack of experienced, mature depth behind the starters who were injured.

    Another season of a rash of injuries can cause another collapse, especially with the strength of schedule we’ll be facing. If not, we might actually be able to accomplish something. 2016 the defense was a substantial step forward from 2015, and 2017 was another from 2016. Then 2018 fell down. Let’s hope we can reclaim the previous rate of improvement, and have a good 2019….

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