For the first time since 2014, the South Carolina Gamecocks will head into the season with high expectations. Things are looking up in Columbia, and this team will need to prove it can handle the pressure. Coach Will Muschamp’s first two seasons were solid building blocks, but this team was able to succeed without the pressure of expectation. South Carolina has been really young and a bit undermanned after transitioning from the Steve Spurrier era. That should change this season, with a solid core of returning players and a roster closer to its full scholarship allotment. While there are a lot of contributors returning for this team, the question is who could be the Gamecocks’ breakout players in 2018?
While last season’s nine-win campaign was looked at as a success, there is still plenty of room for growth. The offense was inept at times. With Coach Muschamp’s focus being defense, there will always be room to improve on that side. If the Gamecocks want to raise their game to the next level and compete with Georgia in the SEC East, they will need to have some players move from showing potential to becoming stars. There are a few players who could be the Gamecocks’ breakout players this season, take a look at the top candidates to do so.
Gamecocks Breakout Players – Offense
Rico Dowdle – Junior – Running Back
The tailback from Asheville has been a solid contributor over his first two seasons in Columbia. South Carolina needs one of its running backs to take hold of the position and make it his. Rico Dowdle is the most likely to do so. The rising junior is a shifty back, with good power to finish off runs. He has over 1,000 career yards, gaining 764 as a true freshman. Dowdle had only 251 yards during his injury-plagued sophomore campaign. He came back from a leg fracture to spark the Gamecocks in their second-half comeback over Michigan during the Outback Bowl. With a new offensive system and the continued growth of this young core of skill players, Dowdle should have a big year in 2018.
Shi Smith – Sophomore – Wide Receiver
Shi Smith was thrust into a bigger role than expected as a freshman. When superstar Deebo Samuel was lost for the season due to injury, Smith was given a bigger load to carry. The 5’10” slot receiver from Union was ready for the challenge. He finished third on the team in yards with 409 and was second on the team with his 14.1 yards per catch and three touchdowns. Smith has proven to be sure-handed and crafty in terms of getting open. He has also shown good ability with the ball in his hands, making guys miss and finding extra yards. Deebo will be back, along with leading receiver Bryan Edwards, but the Gamecocks will need to replace tight end Hayden Hurst’s production. With a faster-paced offense in place, the opportunities for more plays and creating mismatches could allow Smith to increase his numbers as a sophomore.
Gamecocks Breakout Players – Defense
Javon Kinlaw – Junior – Defensive Tackle
By far the biggest of the Gamecocks’ breakout players, this behemoth from Goose Creek checks in at 6’6”, 315 pounds. Javon Kinlaw didn’t arrive at South Carolina in the best of shape. He was forced to spend last preseason simply trying to get his weight down and his endurance up. The big man was able to do so and by mid-season was a mainstay along the defensive line. He finished the season with 17 total tackles and two fumble recoveries. Like most defensive tackles, his impact can’t be measured purely through numbers.
Kinlaw’s size and ability allow him to occupy blockers. This can free up edge rushers and linebackers to make more plays. He will enter this season in with the proper conditioning level. This means his off-season focus can be on getting stronger and better. He won’t have to worry so much about just cutting weight to get into game shape. Already one of the Gamecocks’ most quotable players, Kinlaw has a chance to be one of their most dominant next season.
Kesean Nixon – Senior – Defensive Back
The junior college transfer from California took a while to get himself into the rotation last season. He finally got some significant playing time in the games against Clemson and Michigan, and he was able to produce. Despite not playing all that much, Kesean Nixon had two interceptions, a defensive touchdown, and a fumble recovery. He played very well in the spring and may have locked down a starting corner spot opposite Rashad Fenton. Nixon is a big and athletic corner, both of which the Gamecocks were lacking in that position. Even with limited playing time, Nixon has shown a knack for being involved in big plays. An increased role in 2018 could lead to more big plays.
Shameik Blackshear – Junior – Defensive End
Of all the names of potential Gamecocks’ breakout players, Shameik Blackshear may be the least known outside of local circles. The defensive end from Bluffton, SC was a highly touted recruit. Unfortunately, he has had multiple setbacks keep him from contributing thus far. A high school knee injury, an incident in which he was shot in the leg, and a concussion are among the multitude of things that have kept him from seeing the field. Blackshear is finally healthy and looked really good in spring ball. The former four-star recruit is hoping this season he can show his potential on the field. He should be firmly in the rotation at defensive end. If he can regain the form that made him so highly regarded as a recruit, he could become a big play-maker for the Gamecocks.
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