Story and photos by Jeff Owens
HOOVER, Ala. — Will Muschamp just chuckles when he asked about his football teams' offensive deficiencies over the years.
A former defensive coordinator, he is known for being strong on that side of the ball while his offense struggled at Florida and in much of his first season at South Carolina.
"It's not like we're not trying to score," he said Thursday at SEC Media Days. "That's kind of comical some of the stuff you hear. I don't worry about most of the people who are being critical of you who don't know if a football is stuffed or blown."
The irony is that Muschamp may have his best offensive unit ever in his second season at South Carolina. The Gamecocks averaged just 14 points per game in its first six games last season, but ramped things up considerably when freshman Jake Bentley took over at quarterback in Game 7, scoring 24 points or more in five of the final seven games.
While there are plenty of questions on defense, Muschamp knows his offense has the potential to be explosive this season. That's a big shift from his teams of the past.
"We need to progress and continue to progress," he said. "The thing I like about these guys is that there are a lot of knowns coming back and a lot of competition, and competition normally breeds consistency and performance. When you have got guys competing for playing time and they understand every single day they have to come to practice and perform at a very high level, you are going to get the best out of your guys every day.
"I think we have got some talented guys at the skill positions, we need to continue to improve on the offensive line. But it starts at the quarterback position, and I feel good about Jake."
Bentley will have one of the best receiving groups in the country with the return of wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards and tight end Hayden Hurst, plus a deep group pushing them. He also has a stable of talented running backs, led by returning starters Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner.
Bentley, who took over as the starting quarterback as a true freshman during what was supposed to be his senior year of high school, completed 65.8 percent of his passes and threw for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns in South Carolina's final seven games, including a record-breaking performance in the Birmingham Bowl.
He enters year two with the confidence that the offense can carry South Carolina until the defense comes around.
"We think we can execute any play against any defense," Bentley said. "We might have to score more points this year, but I don't like to look at it as an offense-defense thing. I just think about it as a team and the team has to score more points this for us to be successful. …. Our mindset offensively is to score every time we get the ball. Everyone on our offense believes that we have the tools to do that."
Muschamp is excited to see what Bentley can do in his second season.
"What I have been most proud of is his offseason work as far as how he progressed in spring practice and now into the summer. He continues to take the next step," Muschamp said. "A lot of it has to do with the understanding of what it takes to be a quarterback, and he certainly understands that."
South Carolina finished 6-7 in Muschamp's first season, but won three straight games after starting 2-4 and four of its final seven, including a heartbreaking loss in a shootout against South Florida in the bowl game.
Muschamp was pleased with the way his young team rebounded after a tough start.
"I was extremely proud of that football team," he said. "You're 2-4, you're going into the open week, and I told our staff: 'We're going to go pedal to the metal. We're going to push these guys.'
"And when you're not having success and things aren't going your way, then all of a sudden you got a coach going after you, it's frustrating. But trust is a choice in life, and our guys chose to trust us as a staff and continued to believe, and certainly we were able to turn the thing around. … That's about as proud of a team I've ever been a part of as far as how they continued to fight and believe and trust in us and what we were trying to do."
As he prepares for year two, Muschamp has more talent and depth and a better of understanding of what his players and team are capable of. He has placed an emphasis on getting stronger during the offseason and being more physical on the field. The team has no injuries or academic issues entering fall practice in two weeks, he said.
With the SEC East wide open again, he believes he has the talent and depth, particularly on offense, to contend for a spot in the SEC championship game.
"That's the goal, that's our goal every year," he said. "I think last year, as poorly as things went at times, we went to Gainesville (vs Florida) and we needed three or four other things to happen and we had an opportunity to play in Atlanta. At the end of the day, we are going to do the best we can do and we are gong to try to win every day.
"I like parts of our team. My biggest concern is the unknowns defensively, because we are going to have to rely on some guys who haven't lined up in front of 80,000 people, and not just one or two."
What gives him confidence, though, is a potentially explosive offense led by a young quarterback who proved he can play in the SEC last year.
"I always kinda look at the quarterback position, and I think everybody in our division is returning a starting quarterback, except for Tennessee," he said. "That's where it starts for me as far as a calming factor and being able to win on the road. A lot goes back to that."