By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth and Allen Sharpe
There are some things on the South Carolina football team that are a given.
Sophomore Jake Bentley will start at quarterback after dazzling coaches and fans as a true freshman.
The Gamecocks are loaded at wide receiver and tight end, with Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards and TE Hayden Hurst forming one of the best pass-catching trios in the country. With plenty of depth behind them, South Carolina will throw the ball a lot.
And the backfield is also deep, with Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner returning after productive freshman seasons and transfer Ty'Son Williams impressive enough to challenge for playing time.
But as head coach Will Muschamp has pointed out repeatedly, there are plenty of unknowns.
"We have a young team with 11 seniors and 70 percent of our roster is still freshmen and sophomores. There are a lot of unknowns on our team that still need to be answered," he said.
Here are 10 of the biggest questions Muschamp and his staff must answer as training camp gets under way.
Who will start on the offensive line?
There appear to be three starters in place entering camp and fierce competition at the other two spots. Seniors Alan Knot and Corey Helms appear set at center and left guard, respectively, while junior Zack Bailey has moved outside to right tackle.
Junior Malik Young tops the depth chart at left tackle but red-shirt freshman Sadarius Hutcherson is expected to push him. Donell Stanley leads senior D.J. Park at left guard. Then there is 300-pound junior college transfer Dennis Dailey, who is challenging them all.
"We've got some good competition there and we're not settled at all across the line," Muschamp said. "What is going to be our best combination of five, and who is the sixth, who is the seventh, who is the eighth? Right now those are some things we need to find out quickly in camp."
Who will emerge on the DL?
There are five seniors in the front seven and they must play well because there is little certainty behind them. Seniors Dante Sawyer, Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones are slated to start up front, along with sophomore defensive end D.J. Wonnum. Seniors Skai Moore and Bryson Allen-Williams anchor the linebacker group, with sophomore T.J. Brunson expected to start at the other spot.
But the defensive line needs depth, and Muschamp has put pressure on his seniors up front to step up. Keir Thomas and Kobe Smith played some last year, and junior college transfer Javon Kinlaw is expected to help on the line. Others must challenge for playing time up front.
"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 defensive linemen, so if you want to play early, come to South Carolina, there is an opportunity for you, I can assure you of that."
Who will provide depth at linebacker?
Moore, Allen-Williams and Brunson appear set at the three starting spots, but there is little depth behind them. Muschamp is anxious to see if some of his incoming freshmen can provide depth at linebacker.
“I think we recruited well in the position," Muschamp said. "I think Sherrod Greene is going to be a really good player. Damani Staley has done some nice things, Devonne Bowen, and we’re going to start Brad Johnson out as a Buck right now. It is what it is; that’s where we are right now. Those guys are going to have an opportunity."
Who will lead the secondary?
While the front seven is thin, there is talent and experience in the secondary. Seniors Chris Lammons and JaMarcus King and junior Rashad Fenton will man the corners, while senior D.J. Smith and junior Steven Montac return at safety. Muschamp expects Lammons and Smith to lead the group.
"I think we have certainly improved ourselves in the secondary," he said. "D.J. Smith had a fantastic spring, and he needs to continue with that moving forward. Chris Lammons has done some really good things for us and I'm excited about him consistently playing well. We need JaMarcus King and Rashad Fenton and we need some of the young guys and some of the new faces to fit into that mold of guys. We don't have enough depth back there and we've got to continue to build that."
Freshmen Jaylin Dickerson, Jamyest Williams, Tayvn Jackson and Keisean Nixon are expected to challenge for those roles.
What can Deebo Samuel do for an encore?
Samuel, a wideout, scored nine touchdowns — six on the ground — in 10 games last year and led the team in receptions. He missed three games to injury, however. He must stay healthy for South Carolina to reach its full potential.
"He's a guy who, when he was healthy last year, I thought he was an elite player in our league. He's a guy who is very dangerous with the ball in his hands," Muschamp said. "We've got to find different ways to target him 10 or 15 times."
What kind of offense will we see?
The Gamecocks have a potentially explosive offense with the ability to throw the ball down the field and run it. With Bentley under center, the offense could go pass-heavy, or rely on a solid ground game.
Muschamp's goal is to do both.
"In a pefect world, we would like to be balanced," he said. "As a defensive coach, it's hard to face teams that are balanced that have the equal ability to run it and throw it and the ability to run the ball in critical situations, such as the end of the game, in the red zone, short yardage, on the goal line. … Philosophically, that's what we want."
Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will call most of the plays, with Bentley getting more responsibility to change a play at the line of scrimmage.
"We are going to be on the same page philosophically," Muschamp said. "Kurt calls everything, he runs the offense and we are on the same page as far as what we want to be and do, and that's doing what our players can do. It's not about what we want to be, it's about what our players can do."
Who will start at RB?
Aside from wide receiver, this might be the deepest position on the team, with three potential starters battling for playing time and likely forming a three-back rotation.
Dowdle led the Gamecocks with 764 yards rushing and three 100-yard games last year. He started the final six games. A.J. Turner added 497 yards rushing and brings explosive speed to the rotation. Transfer Ty'Son Williams is expected to challenge for playing time as well.
So who gets the starting nod for the season-opener at N.C. State? While Dowdle is the early favorite, he must earn it, Muschamp said.
“Who practices the best, prepares the best, who takes care of the ball, who’s the most productive guy. Whoever that guy is carries the ball a bunch on game day," Muschamp said. "So, that’ll be determined by them, not me. It’s really simple."
Muschamp says the competition between the three, and possibly others, will make the unit stronger.
"That’s what helps you, when you have competition," he said. "You have to know every single day that you have to practice extremely hard. … You have to have guys pushing each other constantly to understand that they all want to play and they don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines by me."
Can T.J. Brunson step up?
Moore and Allen-Williams give the Gamecocks two senior leaders at linebacker, but they need others to step up to provide depth to a thin group. Brunson, a sophomore from Columbia, played a lot as a freshman and is expected to start at the Mike or Will position.
Muschamp believes he is ready to take the next step.
"He has a lot of the intangibles you look for at the position," Muschamp said. "He's a very good communicator. It's really important to T.J. to play well. He's really self-conscious as far as that is concerned. He has the physicality and all the physical attributes you are looking for. He can run extremely well and strike and hit, and he's extremely bright. I think he has all that except for the experience, which he is going to need to gain."
Who will replace Elliott Fry?
Fry was the best placekicker in school history and the team's all-time leader scorer. He won his share of games and will be hard to replace.
The leading candidate to take over his role his Alex Woznick, a red-shirt freshman from Greenville.
"Alex has the ability to accomplish and do everything that we need to do at the position but he has never done it in front of 80,000 people before and I can't simulate that in camp," Muschamp said. "So to try to put him in as many pressure situation as we can, we will. I certainly have a lot of confidence in Alex."
Who will be the backup quarterback?
Red-shirt junior Michael Scarnecchia was fighting to be in the quarterback mix last year when a lingering shoulder injury forced him to have surgery after spring practice. He missed the 2016 season, but he's healthy now and second on the depth chart behind Bentley. Freshman Jay Urich may also get a shot at the backup job.
If Bentley should get hurt, Scarnecchia, who has thrown just one college pass, will likely get the call.
"I think Michael certainly has the arm talent to play the position extremely well, and Jay Urich will get every opportunity," Muschamp said. "Their reps are really important to us in figuring out who that guy will be."