It’s halftime of “talking season” for South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp: a visit to Harborside East in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday night was the last of eight Spurs Up Tour stops.
SEC Media Days in July is right around the corner.
Muschamp was happy to talk about the progress of OrTre Smith, the former Wando High School wide receiver who missed almost the entire 2018 season with a knee injury. Smith, still recovering, didn’t do much work in spring practice.
“OrTre is doing everything,” Muschamp said. “I’m really pleased with his rehab and how that’s gone.”
Good for South Carolina.
Bad for North Carolina, the Gamecocks’ opponent in Charlotte in the Aug. 31 season opener.
Smith made a flashy college debut with 10 starts and 30 catches as a freshman on a team that went 9-4. It wasn’t a surprise to people who saw Smith, the son of former Clemson volleyball player Tashia Greene, play football and basketball and baseball in Mount Pleasant.
But his 2018 season was cut short after two games and three catches by a subluxing kneecap that kept dislocating and required surgery.
Production from the 6-4, 224-pound redshirt sophomore looks like a key to South Carolina’s 2019 success.
Character-building adversity is part of that.
“When you take away something that’s really important to you, sometimes you take things for granted,” Muschamp said. “I think he understands that. He had a very frustrating fall. He had been a very successful player, obviously, at Wando for coach (Jimmy) Noonan. As he moves into his true freshman year at South Carolina, all of the sudden Deebo Samuel gets injured and his role tremendously increased for us.”
Then a lot of sitting around as the Gamecocks took a step back.
It doesn’t matter if senior Jake Bentley holds off a charge from freshman Ryan Hilinski at quarterback or if former Fort Dorchester High School standout Dakereon Joyner emerges as a talent worth serious playing time.
Every bit of Smith leveraging his extraordinary size/speed skills into big plays is welcome.
This is an offense that must get by without Samuel, the game-breaking wide receiver and kick returner the San Francisco 49ers just snagged with a second-round draft pick.
The rebuilt offensive line is suspect.
There isn’t an authentic No. 1 running back, at least not unless former Clemson national championship contributor Tavien Feaster picks the Gamecocks over Alabama, Oklahoma and other interested shoppers scanning the NCAA’s transfer portal.
When last seen on a football field, the Gamecocks (with Samuel opting to sit out) lost 28-0 to Virginia in the Belk Bowl to slip to 7-6.
Rehab and maturity
Looking ahead to the next game against an ACC team in Charlotte, Muschamp publicly says he is fine with a running back committee of A.J. Turner, Mon Denson and Rico Dowdle (or others).
“At the end of the day, it’s about positive yards in the run game,” Muschamp said, “whether it’s one guy or it’s three guys. Let’s be more positive about what we do. The bottom line is against good people we have not made that guy miss consistently well. We haven’t run through contact consistently well. I think we have capable guys, but we just haven’t done it. That’s something we have to improve on.”
South Carolina was 10th in the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2018 (162.7).
It would have been worse without the passing game providing cover. Bentley last year had the third-best Quarterback Rating (QBR) in the SEC, behind only Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm.
Getting an older, wiser Smith back into a post-Deebo wide receiver mix with Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith should keep defenses honest.
“I think there’s certainly a maturing process that you go through,” Muschamp said.
Having to sit and rehab and watch and rehab some more can pay dividends. The Gamecocks are counting on that from OrTre Smith in 2019.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.