COLUMBIA — They were confident, then hopeful, then desperate.
It was the face-palm of South Carolina’s 2018 season. After six years, a Will Muschamp team finally had an explosive, juggernaut offense.
And the defense, his specialty, was so beat up that the offense didn’t matter.
“They’re going to be good players, I just wish we weren’t putting them in this situation,” Muschamp said after last year’s 56-35 loss to Clemson, which illustrated the point. The Gamecocks sliced through the eventual national champions’ defense for 600 yards, but the USC defense, down to third-stringers at several positions due to injuries, was overwhelmed.
No question about the effort. But talent-wise, there was a reason they were backups and why Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson didn’t want them to play that many significant snaps.
A dreary offseason, made cloudier by Clemson winning its second national championship in three years while the Gamecocks were shut out in their last six quarters, was full of pointed questions. Muschamp answered all at every booster-club meeting: Injuries held back USC, but that’s no excuse. And it will pay off this year.
This year has arrived. Everybody’s healthy. All of the players that were shoved into games before they were ready last year have the benefit of those reps, and the Gamecocks’ depth is the best it’s been under Muschamp.
The time to make words reality is now.
“I think we’ve got a chance to do something special here,” said gargantuan defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, one of two potential first-round NFL prospects across USC’s D-line. “I see what’s going on, I watch film on everybody. Everybody’s making strides, everybody’s improving.”
D.J. Wonnum, the elite pass-rusher and team captain whose loss more than any other spiraled the defense’s production last year, agreed.
“It feels great just knowing that we got the guys to step in, step up, whenever we need somebody to come in,” he said. “The past few years, the first team was pretty much out there the whole game. Just having guys that can come in and do the same job is great to have.”
This is the payoff.
The Gamecocks have oodles of choices to mix and match for formations and schemes, and they went out and added the first five-star recruit of Muschamp’s tenure (Anderson native Zacch Pickens) and another coveted lineman (Joseph Anderson of Murfreesboro, Tennessee).
Muschamp has often said that once a big guy runs out of breath on gameday, he’s done for the day. Everyone saw it last year, like when Brad Johnson had to play 90 snaps and could barely drag himself to the sideline.
“I think we went into one of those games and I told him, ‘You don’t have a backup. I’ll be your backup, I’ll be the next guy in, and I’m not going in,’” assistant coach Mike Peterson said.
If someone gets tired, the Gamecocks have the luxury of letting him take a break while another experienced player slides in his place for a series or two. Nobody would ever call the experience of last year fun, but at least now everyone can see the benefit.
“I think right now we’ve got five or six guys we feel like are going to be able to help us in a game,” said new assistant John Scott, in charge of the defensive line. “The more guys you can play, the harder they can go, and the more guys you can roll in on an offensive line that doesn’t sub in as much, it can be a big-time advantage.”
If it truly starts up front, the Gamecocks are restored and resurgent. Wonnum and Kinlaw alone make USC formidable, and each player has already been lauded by several peers and coaches as not mentioning anything about their future NFL riches, preferring to focus on the here and now.
“I’m definitely more motivated, but I’m not going to go out there and do nothing crazy,” Wonnum said. “I’m just going to play my game. Just stay poised, stay relaxed and do what I do.”
That was what the Gamecocks missed most. It’s no exaggeration to say that Wonnum’s ability makes up half the defensive playbook, and after recording six sacks among 13 tackles for loss as a sophomore, great things were expected of him in 2018.
He went down in the season-opener last year, what was thought at first to be a sprained ankle downgraded to a torn ligament. Wonnum missed the next five games as the Gamecocks frantically tried to switch personnel and schemes to fit. Not much worked.
His numbers were middling but there was no mistaking the impact. In his first game back, USC was nursing a 27-24 lead over Tennessee with the Volunteers at midfield, facing fourth-and-10.
Wonnum shoved his man around the pocket, slipped past and nailed Jarrett Guarantano as he was about to throw. Sack, fumble, Gamecocks win.
He missed the final three games with the same ankle problem. The Gamecocks’ defensive front was shattered, leading to situations like Johnson’s, which heaped more pressure on linebackers unable to stop the flood and a secondary that was also pockmarked with injuries.
“I don’t want to talk about that. If there’s some wood around here, I’ll knock on it,” Robinson said. “We need D.J. to be successful.”
The defensive line is healthy. It’s strong. It’s rebuilt. It’s vital.
GAMECOCKS AT A GLANCE
HEAD COACH: Will Muschamp,
22-17 in 3 seasons at USC
LAST YEAR: 7-6 overall (4-4 SEC)
Offense 7, Defense 7
IMPACT PLAYERS: QB Jake Bentley, WR Bryan Edwards, DE D.J. Wonnum, DT Javon Kinlaw
NOTABLE: The Gamecocks have veteran experience all over the field, but also play the nation’s toughest schedule. Beating a Top 25 team or two would have a significant impact on Bentley’s legacy and Muschamp’s future.
Date Opp. Time
Aug. 31 vs. North Carolina (Charlotte) 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 7 Charleston Southern Noon
Sept. 14 Alabama 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 21 at Missouri TBA
Sept. 28 Kentucky TBA
Oct. 12 at Georgia TBA
Oct. 19 Florida TBA
Oct. 26 at Tennessee TBA
Nov. 2 Vanderbilt TBA
Nov. 9 Appalachian State TBA
Nov. 16 at Texas A&M TBA
Nov. 30 Clemson TBA
CLONINGER'S SEC PREDICTIONS
3. South Carolina
3. Texas A&M
5. Mississippi State
6. Ole Miss
SEC Champion: Alabama