usc offense

South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley (left) and running back Rico Dowdle (right) were among seven true freshmen who were starters in the Gamecocks' lineup in 2016. File/Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina

COLUMBIA — If they didn’t have to, they wouldn’t. But Will Muschamp knew he wasn’t inheriting a stocked roster when he arrived at South Carolina three years ago.

He not only had to recruit talent to fill a bare locker room, he had to recruit immediate talent. There simply wasn’t a lot to lean on.

“We didn’t have any choice the first year,” USC's head football coach said. “So it was what it was.”

Thirteen true freshmen played in 2016, seven of them starting. Included were Jake Bentley, Rico Dowdle, Bryan Edwards and Keir Thomas.

Eight true freshmen played in 2017, four starting (Jamyest Williams, Sherrod Greene, OrTre Smith, Shi Smith).

The best part is all of those starters should continue to start in 2018 (although Williams may not right away, due to the heavy rotation in the secondary). That gives South Carolina what it didn’t have those first two years — experience to place alongside the new players.

The problem is USC is still far removed from having the ability to slowly break in the rookies by playing just a few with the experienced guys. It’s the cycle of college sports, especially in football — with 22 spots to fill, there’s always going to be a freshman or two in there.

In Columbia, there’s a lot in there.

The Gamecocks have played more true freshmen than any team in the country the past two years, and while only one is projected to start this year, there are seven others that are almost certain to play, and four more who could play.

Jaycee Horn, son of former NFL receiver Joe Horn, could helm one starting cornerback spot when the Gamecocks open against Coastal Carolina in a week. Receiver Josh Vann could creep into the lineup at punt return or as one of USC’s top three pass-catchers.

Jovaughn Gwyn has been repping with the backups on the offensive line while Hank Manos is battling Chandler Farrell for No. 2 at center. Dylan Wonnum, D.J.’s brother, should also back up a tackle spot this year.

J.J. Enagbare and Rick Sandidge are backup defensive linemen while Rosendo Louis and Ernest Jones are backup linebackers. Corner Israel Mukuamu may get a shot as the secondary evolves.

And that’s not even mentioning another potential backup offensive lineman (Maxwell Iyama) and a wild card that could see the field on special packages (North Charleston’s Dakereon Joyner).

“We’re in a phase of our defense where we got to keep developing guys. We didn’t develop enough that we needed to (last year),” defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said. “We got a lot of young guys, whether they were mid-years or the guys that came in in June, that we got to get ready to play in Game 1.”

Of course they’d prefer not to have to play so many youngsters, to keep the redshirts intact (and thus build for the future) and the obvious fact — not many are prepared to step into the SEC and play well right away.

“A lot of times, playing as a freshman doesn’t have a lot to do with ability, but it has to do with maturity. How they mature in a situation, how they come on campus and handle themselves,” Muschamp said. “How they get along with their teammates, how they get along with their position coach. I think there are so many variables that affect a guy playing, I think sometimes it has zero to do with ability.”

It helps that most of the new class has been in Columbia since January. It helps that they got a crash course in spring practice and are approaching the physical requirements of playing right away.

But the in-game adjustments, the nuances of playing full-speed? Mistakes will be made. And there will be times when a bewildered newbie looks around and wonders how he got there.

“Freshman mistakes” will happen. All who make them will have a chance to redeem themselves, though, because they won’t be coming out.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.