COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - There were times when Will Muschamp thought football season might not happen for SEC teams.
There were tons of questions about how Southeastern Conference officials were going to pull off giving teams a chance to play. It looked doubtful.
After weeks of uncertainty, testing, forming new protocols, and other planning from the Southeastern Conference officials, Muschamp enters Saturday with a smile on his face.
The Gamecocks will begin regular-season play at home under the lights at Williams-Brice Stadium with fans in attendance as the Gamecocks face Tennessee at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“I’m excited for our players, our staff, our school, our fan base. Just excited to get back to college football, get back to some normalcy here in the Southeastern Conference here at the University of South Carolina. Can’t wait to kick it off on Saturday night.”
The Gamecocks, who finished the 2019 campaign with a 4-8 record after facing one of the toughest schedules in the nation, will face similar challenges this season. The difference, however, is there will be no Coastal Carolina or East Carolina on the docket this year and the annual Palmetto Bowl against Clemson has been put on hold as well due to the SEC’s mandated conference-only schedule modification, but that doesn’t make the slate any easier for Will Muschamp and company who open the season against the Volunteers.
This year, the Gamecocks will call on graduate transfer Collin Hill to lead the offense. The former Colorado State quarterback and Dorman standout joins former Rams head coach and current South Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Bobo in Columbia in hopes of helping a Carolina offense who failed to score a touchdown in its final three games in 2019 while finishing 96th in the country in total offense (371.9 yards per game) and 104th nationally in scoring offense (22.4 points per game).
“This offense is multiple,” said Hill. “We can do a lot of different things. I think that’s what we’re going to try to do. Just do different stuff, try to get it to our guys, and we’ll see what happens.”
Last year, Hill played in three games for the Rams and completed 67.6% of his passes while tossing eight touchdowns before being sidelined for the season after tearing his ACL for the third time in his left knee.
Joining Hill in the backfield to start the game this season will be Kevin Harris. The sophomore was a key contributor to South Carolina’s run game a year ago. Last season, he had 21 carries for 179 yards and four touchdowns. This year, Harris will be among a stable of young running backs the Gamecocks will rely on to help move the ball down the field on the ground. Shi Smith returns for his senior season with Carolina as the team’s top returning receiver. Smith finished last year as the team’s second-leading receiver with 43 catches for 489 yards and two touchdowns.
“We certainly have a strong belief in Shi’s ability,” said Muschamp. “I know I do. I know Coach Bobo does and [wide receivers] Coach [Joe] Cox. I know our offensive staff and our offensive players and Ryan [Hilinski] and Collin and our quarterbacks. We think Shi is a really good football player and he’s got a great year sitting in front of him, but we need more guys to continue to step up.”
Among those who will be asked to help take some pressure away from Shi will be Xavier Legette, former quarterback Dakereon Joyner, and newcomer Luke Doty, who will be spending a lot of time with the wide receivers corps although he signed to play as a quarterback. Even tight ends like Nick Muse and Keveon Mullens will be asked to make plays to help the offense put more points on the board.
Defensively, the Gamecocks will line up three seniors in Aaron Sterling, Keir Thomas, and Jabari Ellis on their defensive line while Kingsley Enagbare will play BUCK for the team. Behind them, Ernest Jones will key the defense at middle linebacker with Sherrod Greene and Brad Johnson flanking him on each side.
The secondary will be anchored by junior cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu. The two defensive backs have gotten a lot of attention during the offseason with rumblings of their possible future in the pros.
“When you’ve got guys that have got length like Izzy and Jaycee, it obviously gives you more of a chance to play a little more man-to-man, a little more bump-and-run,”' said Gamecocks defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson. “Those guys excel at things like that, but those guys have got to continue to keep developing. Like I tell them all the time, they got a long way to go. I know you guys think they’re the best thing since sliced bread, but they have the potential to be really good players. They really do, but they’ve got a lot of work to do to get to that level and they’ve got to put it out on game day.”
South Carolina hosts Tennessee at Williams-Brice Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. The game can be seen on the SEC Network.