Darren Hellwege is previewing each of Missouri’s football opponents for the 2014 season. The previews are being published Aug. 1 – 13 and will appear in the order of play.
Missouri at South Carolina
Date: Sept. 27, time TBD
Record: Gamecocks finished 11-2 overall in 2013 and haven’t lost at Williams-Brice Stadium in two years; overall an 18 game win streak in Columbia
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
After trailing 17-0 behind backup Dylan Thompson, the Gamecocks brought injured Connor Shaw off the bench for an amazing comeback, defeating the Tigers 27-24 in double overtime, Mizzou’s first loss of the 2013 season. Finished behind Missouri for the SEC East championship, but with an 11-2 season and No. 4 finish in both USA Today/Coaches poll and AP. For the third year in a row, South Carolina beat the eventual SEC Eastern Division champ (in this case, Missouri) but ended up one game behind. And they’ll compete for (and I predict finally win) the East Division crown once again this year.
In a nutshell: If new QB Thompson steps up (and I think he will) offense could be among nation’s best, but defense has some question marks. Graduated Connor Shaw (my pick for best QB in the SEC last year) but fifth-year senior Thompson had snaps in 25 games the last three years with three starts (including the game at Mizzou last year.) Thompson is less of a runner and more of a pocket passer than Shaw. Relatively inexperienced as far as on the field play, but five years in the program means he knows the offense backward and forward and makes good decisions. Who will back him up is a bit of a question mark, but redshirt freshman Connor Mitch is a guy I like a lot, a big guy who can make throws. Brenden Nosovitch isn’t as good a passer as Mitch but is scary as a runner.
Dangerous Mike Davis returns, the second team All-SEC RB is strong, fast and elusive. Brandon Wilds is a bruiser who can run between the tackles, but also is a fine receiver out of the backfield. Keep an eye out for freshman David Williams, a very talented youngster.
There is a lot of buzz around the Carolina offensive line, which returns four of five starters. Left guard A.J. Cann is experienced with 38 starts, and he, LT Corey Robinson, and RT Brandon Shell were all named to the watch list for the Outland Trophy. Robinson in particular impresses me — even if he didn’t move you’d need a motorcycle to get around him to the QB, and trust me, he can move. Expect to see at least Robinson, and quite possibly Cann and Shell as well, playing on Sundays in a year or two. Center Cody Waldrop played a lot as a redshirt freshman in spite of nagging injuries in 2013 and should anchor the line for a while. Mike Matulis is expected to fill the RG spot, and also has experience, 10 starts at tackle, and was a freshman All-American (The Sporting News) a couple of years ago but missed all of 2013 with shoulder problems.
Shaq Roland may be the top receiver as ‘Cocks return several good ones but lose their top man, Bruce Ellington. Roland isn’t a huge guy at 6-feet 1-inch, but has speed and moves to get separation. He had only 25 receptions in 2013, but averaged more than 18 yards a catch. Few freshmen in the nation impressed me more than WR Pharoh Cooper, a strong receiver and outstanding kick returner. Gamecocks won’t use TE a lot for receiving, but they have some good ones: Rory “Busta” Anderson is dangerous as a receiver and blocker, and Jerell Adams can make a catch for you when needed.
How do you replace three outstanding defensive linemen? There’ll never be another Jadevion Clowney, and I said more than once that DT Kelsy Quarles was among the most underrated defenders in the SEC, and Chaz Sutton leaves big shoes to fill as well. But, the team moves on with some interesting options. Senior J.T. Surratt anchors the middle, but Steve coach Spurrier needs some young guys to step up at the end position. And in a move destined to leave announcers and viewers irretrievably confused, it now looks like the team could start both Gerald Dixon and his half-brother, Gerald Dixon, on the line. No. 44 Gerald Dixon played very well and end against Mizzou but was a bit small for an SEC lineman. Meanwhile while No. 92 (who goes by Gerald Dixon, Jr.) is a big guy who can stuff the run and rush and crush QBs as well. Speaking of small, 241-pounder Darius English looks to be in place at the other end slot for now. Four-star DT recruit Dexter Wideman, who originally committed to Florida State before flipping to the Gamecocks, failed to qualify academically and is now probably junior college-bound.
The linebacker slot is the strong point in the defense, led by Skai Moore, a freshman All-Conference pick in 2013. Moore led the team in tackles and interceptions last year and likes to hit. Another Soph Jonathan Walton backs up Moore at the Will. At the Mike linebacker position, Kaiwan Lewis, who was huge for Spurrier in the Capitol One Bowl, and sophomore T.J. Holloman compete, with Lewis on the first fall depth chart, which probably means nothing.
At the spur position (a hybrid linebacker/safety type deal) Sharrod Golightly returns after an all-SEC performance last year. He’ll be turned to for leadership on a young, inexperienced defense. A real jack-of-all-trades, he can defend the pass or run and has the speed to ring up some tackles for loss and blitz. Offenses better account for this guy. He’s back up by Jordan Diggs who got plenty of experience including the start against Wisconsin in the bowl game.
The secondary is…troubled. One Gamecock blog, the Garnet and Black Attack, thought the best answer was “somebody change the rules so cornerbacks are not allowed.” That seems unlikely, so the ‘Cocks will have to send out the best they can find. At one spot the starter seems to be Sidney Rhodes. Some are troubled by his status as a “former walk-on,” a concern they should run by those who saw Randy Ponder play the position quite well at Mizzou. Sophomore Rico McWilliams gets the other starting nod at least for now, he played in nine games last year, starting against Arkansas and Wisconsin, after losing his first year to a knee blowout in 2012. Freshman Al Harris will get a serious look in fall camp, and highly-touted recruits Wesley Green and Chris Lammons have qualified academically after some earlier questions about that (another, Darin Smalls, reportedly did not). Experienced safety Brison Williams might be moving to corner, along with Jamari Smith who played running back last year, and Ali Groves returns from a redshirt year. All have at least some potential.
The news is better at safety, where Chaz Elder came on strong as his redshirt freshman season progressed, he’ll get the free safety nod although T.J. Gurley is another guy coming back from injuries who’s shown something in the past. The strong safety slot probably goes to senior Kadetrix Marcus, but he’ll be pushed by young Chris Moody.
Returning intact is Spurrier’s outstanding coaching staff, and the success of recent years at USC cannot be ignored. The Gamecocks are becoming a consistent winner, grabbing 11 wins three seasons in a row. “We’ve been winning the close ones, last year I think we won six out of seven that could have gone either way, and that’s how you win 11 games,” Spurrier said.
At 69 years old, I wonder how much longer “The Old Ball Coach” will remain, he’s got a very strong (and young) staff with excellent recruiters, particularly a defensive assistant named Steve Spurrier, Jr., and one assumes the winning will continue for the foreseeable future at South Carolina.
USC was the only loss for Missouri during the regular season last year on Faurot Field, and while there are holes this looks like the class of the east division of the SEC, and if one has to pick now, expect this to be Mizzou’s first loss of the year and drop the Tigers to 4-1.
Darren Hellwege is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the United States Basketball Writers Association