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Gamecocks down 5 starters as players opt out following Muschamp firing

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COLUMBIA — Many were wondering once Mike Bobo took over as South Carolina’s interim head coach if the Gamecocks’ defense would change. It’s been the shoddy defense, not so much Bobo’s offense, that led to the 2-5 record that got Will Muschamp fired.

It will change, all right, beginning with Saturday’s home game against Missouri. A defense that has been morose all season lost five starters this week.

Cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu, the team’s best NFL draft prospects, announced they are each opting out of the final three games to get a head start on their professional training. Safety R.J. Roderick is also opting out for what Bobo labeled “personal/COVID reasons.”

Defensive end Aaron Sterling and linebacker Brad Johnson, who each missed last week’s loss at Mississippi, are out for the season with injuries, and defensive lineman Makius Scott, who hasn’t played this year and was set to redshirt, is also opting out.

That’s 22 starts, 66 tackles, four of the Gamecocks’ six interceptions and seven of their 19 pass breakups that are suddenly missing.

“The guys are here that are here,” Bobo said. “No ill will toward anybody that isn’t, but the guys that are here have a great opportunity to handle adversity and rise up.”

Horn was likely to leave after the season for the NFL anyway, and Mukuamu had that option as well, although a groin injury against Ole Miss had him doubtful to play the rest of this year. Their decisions along with Roderick to leave now with three games on the table seem to be the consequence of firing Muschamp in midseason, though Bobo wouldn’t get into specifics.

Mukuamu

“It’s been a long year, it’s a different year, when it’s told to young kids, ‘Hey, you don’t have to play this year, you can opt out and it doesn’t count,’ it gives them a way out, in my opinion,” said Bobo, who doesn’t anticipate any more opt-outs before the year but cautioned that one never knows. “This isn’t the only place where coaches are having issues with a long season and the ability to opt out. There’s no hard feelings for anybody.”

Bobo had his first team practice Tuesday, and it was not good. It needs to substantially improve to beat Missouri on Saturday.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a difficult process for people to respond to. But we still have belief that we can play for each other,” said Connor Shaw, who was elevated to assistant quarterbacks coach this week. “Good things happen to people who don’t give up.”

The Gamecocks will move former starting offensive lineman Jordan Rhodes to defensive line to get some more beef up front. Third-string running back ZaQuandre White, a special-teams standout, has moved to safety this week.

Cam Smith and John Dixon should take the starting corner spots vacated by Horn and Mukuamu, while Joey Hunter and Darius Rush could step in as well. The Gamecocks are sticking as many fingers into as many holes as possible, but the leaks are getting overwhelming.

Bobo has been a head coach before, but his plate has been filled with second and third helpings of responsibilities. From more media obligations (he’s had two press conferences in two days and has to take Muschamp’s spot on Wednesday’s SEC coaches call and Thursday’s local radio call-in show) to overseeing coaching shuffles and depth charts, it’s been a trying week.

“It’s a challenge enough when you got to take over and you’re not the head coach. It’s a challenge this year with what we’re dealing with, with kids being able to opt out at any moment,” he said. “We talked about it being about us. Talked about how it’s not an individual sport, it’s a team sport.”

A team that has been riddled with defections over the last two days.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

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