COLUMBIA — The reminders are pasted on the wall, South Carolina figuring it couldn’t be a bad idea to decorate each position room in its new operations center with the greats of the past. Bobby Bentley’s tight end room features hovering images of Jared Cook and Hayden Hurst, each a Gamecock who plays on NFL Sundays.
Bentley likes to emphasize the point. Do what those guys did and you could be next.
“We find good clips of Hayden, good clips of Jared, good clips of other tight ends across the NFL and show, ‘Hey, this is the set, and the movement skill that you want on this play,’ and we bring up Hayden a lot,” Bentley said.
There isn’t any flowing red hair cascading from the back of a helmet these days, but there are other things that Hurst brought to the team. The Gamecocks’ tight ends have the same experience, leadership and production that Hurst had; now it’s their time to repeat his notoriety.
“I’ll be still doing the same thing, blocking and catching on flat routes. But it’s all about game-planning,” senior Kiel Pollard said. “I’m ready to see what they got for me as much as you.”
USC’s tight ends flourished last year, becoming much more than the safety-net receivers. While none had the individual profile of Hurst, as a group they put up some big plays.
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Jacob August and Kyle Markway caught the first two touchdowns of the game at Florida. Markway was all by himself in the middle of the field against Missouri for the catch that set up Parker White’s game-winning field goal. Pollard was the top receiver among the tight ends and scored two touchdowns.
These tight ends are much more than the dirty-work blockers under Lou Holtz and emphasized more than the bail-out options of Steve Spurrier. Will Muschamp had an elite talent in Hurst and used him thusly, and the players that follow him will get the same opportunity.
Bentley mentioned how many sets of two and even three tight ends per play the Gamecocks have, and doesn’t see a reason that won’t continue. The packages will be installed, for sure; how much they’re used will as usual depend on situation and production.
“Before meetings, we actually show clips of what we call good tight end plays. Because really our tight end position, we’re a fullback, we’re an H-back, we’re an in-line tight end, and we’re a receiver,” Bentley said. “When you look at that skill set, that’s hard to find.”
August and K.C. Crosby are gone, but USC returns Pollard, Markway and Evan Hinson. Pollard and Markway are the old men of the group, Pollard a true senior and Markway a fifth-year guy, who’s already been approved for a sixth year in 2020.
Hinson is the X-factor. Long known as a two-sport star, splitting his college years between football and Frank Martin’s basketball team, Hinson gave up hoops in the middle of last season so he could fully concentrate on spring practice. He’s played in 23 games but only has one catch, a 1-yarder in last season’s win over Chattanooga.
Will Muschamp previewed the start of his fourth preseason camp on Thursday.
Hinson has the build to make it to the next level, and 2019 and 2020 to prove his worth on the field. The Gamecocks’ depth chart is such that they have three veterans on top and zero production underneath, which gives Hinson that opportunity.
“I’ve seen an improvement, but there’s still got to be more improvement from a standpoint of overall skill development,” Bentley said. “When we got here, I actually recruited Evan. I know his father, so him playing basketball and playing football is what I thought he’d always do. It was his decision to just focus on football, and I hope it pays off for him, because he’s got the skill set.”
Bentley credited Pollard as one of the hardest workers on the team and said Markway resembles Marcus Lattimore in how he never makes excuses and makes everyone around him better. Those are the kind of players a team needs, especially if they can produce.
Cook did. Hurst did. They parlayed it into NFL careers.