The South Carolina Gamecocks are in good position heading into the final stretch of games in 2017. They sit at 5-2 (3-2 in SEC) with four of their last five games at home. Coming off the bye week they will face Vanderbilt this weekend. The Gamecocks won two in a row heading into the bye and the week off came at the best time for this banged up squad.
Gamecocks Prep for Final Stretch
Sitting a 5-2 is a place very few thought Will Muschamp’s team would be at this point. The growth of this young team since he took over has been impressive. However, they are by no means a finished product and need to make good use of the bye to improve. Despite having mostly home games, the final stretch will be a tough one to navigate for the Gamecocks. In order to look back and feel like they improved over the bye week, there are a few things that need work.
Coach Eric Wolford’s offensive line unit has been a major focus all season. Games are most times won and lost in the trenches. The focus has shifted from the inconsistent play of the unit, to all the injuries it has endured, back to its performance again. The second halves of the last two ball games have been their best work. The o-line controlled things as the games versus Arkansas and Tennessee wore on. This led to two of the Gamecocks better rushing totals in 2017.
The bye week was possibly most beneficial to this group. Three opening week starters have missed multiple games with injury, but should all be returning back to full strength. The experience gained for some backups due to injuries means extra depth now that everyone has returned. Coach Wolford now has options when trying to decide what his best lineup is. Zach Bailey will be back this week, and he should slot back in the starting line somewhere. He excelled at left guard last year, and was solid in his games at right tackle this season. The line has played well lately, and with injured guys returning now there will be more depth and competition to push this group to higher levels.
Getting Hurst the Ball
Once Deebo Samuel went down with injury, Hayden Hurst became the clear cut best player on the Gamecock offense. Unfortunately opposing teams know this too. Hurst has played well this year, with 19 catches and 297 yards. He has three total touchdowns, with catches of 39 and 62, and a two yard run as well. While his numbers are solid, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper still needs to find ways to get him more involved. He has been used on jet sweeps on occasion, but getting him catches while in space against smaller defenders needs to happen more.
Hurst has been a major factor blocking this year, he is often looked at to help the o-line even in some passing situations. Backup Jacob August is also an accomplished blocker, so if he continues to see more snaps it may free up Hurst to be more of a receiving threat. The line’s improvement will also negate some of the big tight end’s blocking responsibilities. Hurst set a South Carolina record for receptions by a tight end last season with 48, but will need big numbers down the final stretch to match that. He has only two games this season with more than three catches.
Question marks swarmed around the Gamecock’s defensive line heading into the season. Could the rush the passer? Will they continue to get pushed back at the point of attack? Will power running games overpower them? Through seven games those questions have been answered, mostly in the Gamecocks favor. The defensive front has been a strong point of a surprisingly good South Carolina defense. Seniors Taylor Stallworth and Dante Sawyer anchor the line, and have had very good final seasons in Columbia. Stallworth is a mountain to move in the interior of the line and has played his role stuffing the run well. Sawyer plays both inside and at end, and just finds ways to make plays. He has three sacks and four forced fumbles this year.
The youth movement on the line is producing as well. Sophomores D.J. Wonnum and Keir Thomas have raised their level of play this year. Thomas is much like Sawyer, he has the versatility to play inside and at end. He has two sacks and forced fumbles in 2017. Wonnum was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for his performances against Arkansas and Tennessee. For the season he has 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He is developing into a force coming off the edge. Freshman Aaron Sterling and Brad Johnson continue to develop and get more playing time at defensive end.
The Gamecocks are in good position to finish off a successful season. They host Vanderbilt next, before a trip to Athens to face Georgia the next week. South Carolina’s final stretch concludes with three home games against Florida, Wofford, and Clemson. The Gamecocks have a good chance to beat Vandy, Wofford, and Florida which would secure a winning record overall and in the SEC. They will also have two opportunities to beat a hated rival and ruin their College Football Playoff chances. They will certainly be underdogs in both against both Georgia and Clemson, but anything can happen in a rivalry game. South Carolina will need to continue improving if they want to finish the 2017 strong. Things are lined up well for them coming out of the bye.