COLUMBIA — There’s the search for a quarterback, a five-player competition that won’t be decided until preseason camp. There’s the effort to shore up a secondary that’s as much a worry now as it was last season. And Will Muschamp has one more item on his list of primary concerns leaving spring practice.
“We don’t have much depth as far as playmakers are concerned,” South Carolina’s head football coach said following his first spring game.
The departures of receiver Pharoh Cooper and tight end Jerell Adams, both bound for the NFL draft, have left a void the Gamecocks won’t easily fill. While Muschamp came out of spring feeling positive about Deebo Samuel at one wideout and the combination of David Williams and A.J. Turner in the backfield, they alone aren’t enough to revive an offense that moved in fits and starts during last season’s 3-9 campaign.
Saturday’s spring game, though, may have offered some candidates to enhance USC’s playmaking ability — and that’s not including quarterback Brandon McIlwain, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another on a day he generated 188 yards of total offense and looked comfortable running co-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s up-tempo system.
McIlwain’s two touchdown passes went to another early enrollee freshman, receiver Bryan Edwards of Conway, who made scoring receptions of 4 and 12 yards. They were two of three catches on the day for Edwards, whom Muschamp listed as a prospective starter on the first spring depth chart, and only strengthened his position from there.
“Bryan Edwards at the end of spring really took some steps forward,” said Muschamp, who listed the receiver along with McIlwain and defensive end Keir Thomas as the freshmen who made the biggest impacts in spring practice. Edwards “showed some playmaking ability down the field,” Muschamp added.
The head coach also liked what he saw from Jamari Smith, a running back turned slot receiver, who caught a 5-yard touchdown from Connor Mitch in the spring game and finished with six catches for 54 yards. His longest play was a catch in the flat in which Smith juked a defender and went down the sideline for 19 yards.
“He’s a guy who has some playmaking ability, especially yards after the catch,” Muschamp said. “We’ll be able to get him some bubbles and other quicks that we have off the run game, but he’s a guy who can do some nice things for you in space.”
Smith came to USC as a running back, was moved to defensive back by former head coach Steve Spurrier, and is now in the slot. “It’s been a lot thrown at me,” said the rising junior, who redshirted his second season at USC due to a broken foot. “But you have to take it, you have to go with it. You have to just learn.”
Smith played last season primarily on special teams. His freshman year, he rushed for 103 yards against Coastal Carolina. “You can tell he’s an athlete with the ball in his hands,” said Samuel. “I don’t think one guy out there can tackle him in open space. He’s just a real athlete, and he’s going to help us.”
Smith admitted that being shifted from one position to another could be frustrating. “At times,” said the Jacksonville, Fla., native. “But if you want to play, you’ve got to do it.”
Coming out of the spring, it’s easy to envision Samuel, Edwards and Smith as USC’s three top receiving targets, augmented by tight ends Kevin Crosby and Hayden Hurst. Trying to play his way into that conversation is Javon Charleston, a redshirt freshman walk-on who finished the spring game with four catches for 54 yards.
“I definitely have big expectations for myself,” said the native of Gurnee, Ill. “Coach said we’re big on first impressions, so I tried to make sure my name would be looked on in a good note. Just keep on improving and play well when it comes to the fall.”