Starting at the Back
What can be said about South Carolina's defensive performance in 2014 that has not already been said? After ranking 117th nationally in DFEI and last in the SEC in sacks and TFL, while only placing 10th in the SEC in interceptions, there's room for improvement all around. If there's a positive to be gleaned, it is that the defense was young last season and returns eight starters.
Last season, the Gamecocks returned practically no experience at cornerback and it immediately showed in the season opening game against Texas A&M that anointed Kenny Trill as a Heisman hopeful (for a couple weeks anyway). This season, only one contributor is lost at corner (Brison Williams—who shuttled between corner and safety while accounting for over a third of South Carolina's interceptions in 2014 with 4), but rising sophomores Chris Lammons and Al Harris combined for 11 starts. Neither Lammons or Harris recorded an interception, but the experience of being thrown in at the deep end in 2014 should start to pay dividends in 2015.
In a chicken or egg dilemma, the defensive front struggled equally as much as the secondary in 2014. If the defense can improve on its SEC worst 14 sacks, the secondary should improve. Leading sacker Gerald Dixon—not to be confused with Gerald Dixon Jr.—returns, but Dixon only managed 2 sacks last season. It appears that South Carolina will be expecting some newcomers to contribute early at defensive end after signing six players classified as defensive ends by 247Sports including a pair of four star junior college ends, Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer, and a pair of four star high school ends. Lewis and Sawyer should be obvious candidates for early playing time and if they can live up to their billing and help take pressure off the secondary, the defense should improve exponentially.
Fun and Three-Yards-and-a-Cloud?
Despite the defense's sub-100 ranking in the DFEI, the offense ranked number four in the overall OFEI (and top 25 in Explosive Drives and Value Drives). With the loss of seven starters including Dylan Thompson, an offensive regression in 2015 could be expected. Connor Mitch is slated to take over at quarterback, but after Thompson set the SC single season passing yardage mark in 2014, expecting similar passing numbers to 2014 could be a stretch.
If anything, Steve Spurrier could be looking to slow the pace of the offense to help the defense. Spurrier admitted as much at SEC Media Days:
SC coach Steve Spurrier: We've got to stay on the field more. Not only drive for TDs but consume some clock. #SECMD15— Jim Kleinpeter (@JimKleinpeter) July 14, 2015
Three returning starters come back on the offensive line, but the most notable returner is senior tackle Brandon Shell. Shell has started 35 consecutive games, but the vast majority of those have been at right tackle. In the SEC Media Days depth chart, Shell was listed at left tackle but it sounds like significant shuffling could take place in fall practice.
If the offensive line can solidify, they'll have an experienced running back behind them in senior Brandon Wilds. Wilds averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2014, but only got 106 carries behind the departed Mike Davis. Wilds season high last year was 143 yards against Tennessee on only eight carries.
Is Mitch the Quarterback of the Future?
Connor Mitch enters fall camp as the presumptive starter, but after only attempting six passes in his redshirt freshman season last year, he does not have the experience or results to solidify his claim on the starting role yet. Spurrier said as much at SEC Media Days:
"It hasn't been resolved. We've had three quarterbacks that rotated around during spring practice, and statistically in the spring game, they're very even. Percentage-wise, about the same, yards, touchdowns, all that. So we're going to keep competing during preseason practice. We've got a month before the first game. So we should be able to figure out who can play the best."
Along with Mitch, true freshman Lorenzo Nunez, redshirt freshman Michael Scarnnecchia and junior Perry Orth are expected to compete for the starting berth. And as Spurrier said, it's not as if he's never been known to play two quarterbacks:
"I've been a coach to play two quarterbacks. I think you all know that. And you can win with two. There's nothing in the rule book that says you have to have one. So if we do play more than one, it will be because both of them are about the same ability-wise."
Regardless of who ends up with throwing the ball, they will have Pharoh Cooper and a bunch of unknown quantities at wide receiver. Redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel was penciled in one of the receiver slots in the Media Days depth chart from the Gamecocks, but this is another position that figures to have plenty of competition in fall camp and into the season to develop a solid rotation.