By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
As Steve Spurrier used to say, talking season is over.
Will Muschamp's Gamecocks aren't prone to talking a big game — their head coach won't allow it. But there has been optimism throughout South Carolina's training camp. The coaches are confident this team is better than last years and the players have bought into Muschamp's system and approach.
By all accounts, the Gamecocks had a hard, physical, productive camp that prepared them for the 2017 season. And there are plenty of reasons for optimism, primarily a talented offense that is expected to put up big numbers. If the defense is improved like they believe it is, season two of the Muschamp era could be a big step forward.
But practice is over and the real thing starts Saturday in Charlotte against a good NC State team.
"I think we’ve had a good camp, but talk is cheap," Muschamp said Tuesday. "We have to go play on Saturday afternoon and play well, and that’s what we plan on doing."
Though it's hard to predict how good this team will be, there are several exciting players to watch. Players who, if they reach their potential and shine as expected, could lead the Gamecocks to a big turnaround.
Here are seven players I can't wait to see play this season:
Of course, he tops the list. He's the most important player on this team. If he plays as well as his coaches and others expect, he could emerge as one of the best quarterbacks in the country and lead the Gamecocks to a big season.
Coach after coach and player after player have attested to Bentley's mastery of the offense and intelligence as a quarterback. He has a big, accurate arm and plenty of weapons around him.
More importantly, Bentley has developed into the clear-cut leader of the team, like a quarterback is supposed to.
"To understand the calming effect Jake has on the rest of our football team but certainly to our offense, it’s pretty evident," Muschamp said.
We got a glimpse of what Bentley can do when he took over at quarterback six games into last season. Hopefully, his 390-yard, three-TD performance in the Birmingham Bowl was just a preview of what we will see this season.
I believe it was. I'm excited to see what Bentley can do in this offense.
Bentley may be the leader, but Samuel is the Gamecocks' most dynamic player and most dangerous playmaker. He scored nine touchdowns last year despite missing three games, and he scored them in a variety of ways.
Bentley and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will try to get the ball to Samuel any way they can and as often as possible. He'll run the ball, he'll catch the ball, he'll go deep. He'll also return kicks after taking one to the house last year. He even threw a touchdown pass.
Samuel averaged 132 all-purpose yards per game last year and exploded for 14 catches for 190 yards in the bowl game. I think we'll see more games like that from him this year.
While Samuel should be one of the best wide receivers and all-purpose players in the country, Hurst could be one of the nation's best tight ends, making Bentley and the offense even more dangerous.
A former minor league baseball player, Hurst set school records for receptions (48) and yards by a tight end (616) last year, and it seems like he just scratched the surface of what he can do. Hurst (6-5, 250) is a monster in the weight room, setting the standard for an intense offseason conditioning program for the team. As a result, he's bigger, stronger, faster and has a much better idea of what he's capable of.
"To be that big and run that fast, he's definitely hard to cover," Bentley said. "Just like Deebo, we are going to try to get him the ball as much we can."
And perhaps Hurst's biggest asset is that he has a quarterback he has already developed great chemistry with.
Players like Samuel should open up the field for Hurst, and vice-versa. It will be exciting to see how dominant he can be in a full season with Bentley.
The Gamecocks are in desperate need of a dominant pass rusher. They haven't had one since Jadeveon Clowney, and we all know how good they were with JD residing in opposing backfields.
Darius English led South Carolina with nine sacks last year, but he graduated. No one else had more than two.
Wonnum, a 6-4, 250-pound sophomore, showed flashes of potential as a freshman with 32 tackles, 3.5 for loss. He has been dominant at times in camp, reportedly sacking Bentley three times in one practice, and appears to have all the intangibles to be a great pass rusher.
If Wonnum can get to the quarterback and be a constant threat on the edge, the Gamecock defense will be much improved.
In order to generate a good pass rush, you have to have dominant players inside to tie up offensive linemen, clog the middle and stop the run. The Gamecocks are thin on the interior of the defensive line, but the one player they can count on is Stallworth, who has 30 games and 18 starts to his credit.
Stallworth is stronger, quicker and has raised some eyebrows in training camp. "He's making me a better player," center Alan Knott said. Defensive line coach Lance Thompson says Stallworth is "our one guy who is a special guy, a SEC top-level player."
The defensive line is perhaps the biggest question mark on the team. Stallworth is the one player who can erase those doubts. If he has a big season, the defense could go from questionable to very good in a hurry.
Moore is South Carolina's most accomplished player, having led the team in tackles for three straight seasons before missing last year with an injury. Getting him back is perhaps the biggest move South Carolina made during the offseason.
SEC coaches think so highly of Moore they named him preseason first-team All-SEC even though he missed all of last season. He instantly makes the defense better.
"When Skai is on the field, you know Skai is on the field," Stallworth said. "Wherever the ball goes, guess what, Skai is going to be at that ball."
Muschamp and the coaching staff have been pleased with the first-team defense. The unit is stronger, faster and, presumably, more physical. Moore is a big reason for that.
"We are much faster than we were a year ago," Muschamp said. "When you put No. 10 on the field defensively, you get faster."
Moore is not only a great tackler and an important leader on the field, he has a nose for the ball and a knack for creating turnovers. His 11 career interceptions are third on the school's all-time list. Fans will never forget how he saved the game for South Carolina the last time he played in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium.
If the Gamecock defense is much improved, Moore will be a big reason why. I think he's poised for a big year and a big payday in next year's NFL Draft.
First, the good news: The most experienced position on the team is the secondary, where four starters and three seniors return.
Now, the bad news: The secondary has not been very good the past few years.
Muschamp, a former defensive back coach, believes they will be better this season and has praised seniors Chris Lammons and D.J. Smith and junior Rashad Fenton throughout training camp. Depth is a concern, but the one player who can make a huge difference is Williams, the top recruit in the 2017 class.
Williams was considered one of the best athletes in the country as a high school senior and was rated the No. 3 cornerback in the country by ESPN. As expected, he has already won a starting job at nickel.
Williams should develop into a shut-down corner and a dynamic playmaker. He should help the Gamecocks generate more turnovers and could be a factor in the return game.
If Williams lives up to expectations, he will be on the SEC All-Freshman team and be a fixture in the Gamecock secondary for at least the next three years.