Grading the Gamecocks midway through Shane Beamer’s first year at South Carolina

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Shane Beamer’’s first season in Columbia is already half over.

South Carolina currently sits at 3-3 overall and 0-3 in Southeastern Conference play heading into a brutal final stretch that includes Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Clemson.

So what can we draw from the first half of the year? Let’s grade some position groups:

Offense: C-

South Carolina’s offense exploded onto the scene six weeks ago with a 46-0 throttling of Eastern Illinois. And while EIU hasn’t won more than three games since 2017 in the FCS, USC flowed with a consistent running presence as quarterback Zeb Noland held down the fort under center in wake of Luke Doty’s foot injury.

Fast forward a month and there are far more questions than answers on the offensive side of things.

South Carolina currently ranks No. 11 in rushing offense, No. 12 in passing offense and No. 13 in scoring offense and total offense in the SEC.

On the positive side, Doty continues to improve as a passer and looks the part of a player who could hold down the position in Columbia for the next three or four years. Running back Kevin Harris against Tennessee on Saturday looked closer to the form we saw when he led the SEC in rushing a season ago.

That said, the Gamecocks have been a mess on the offensive line and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield — fair or not — has come under fire for some of his play-calling decisions the past few weeks.

It was always going to take time to install a new system ,and Beamer, Satterfield and even Doty have preached patience in getting things rolling. But for a unit that hasn’t scored more than 25 points against FBS competition this year, time is running out.

Defense: A-

Say what you will about the South Carolina offense, but the defense has been borderline lights out through six games.

South Carolina has largely bent, but not broken, this fall outside of Saturday’s first half against Tennessee. But after being torched for almost 400 yards in the opening 30 minutes in Knoxville, the Gamecocks only allowed 99 yards — including nine yards passing (!!) — in the second half.

USC’s defensive line has been as advertised, disrupting opponents’ offensive lines on a consistent basis. Kingsley “JJ” Enagbare still has the looks of a first-round NFL pick come this spring, and those around him are helping to create havoc on just about every play.

That’s not to mention Jaylan Foster who, short of Noland, has one of the more intriguing paths to stardom we’ve seen this season. Foster started his career at Gardner-Webb and had been relegated to scout team duties the past few years. Halfway through 2021, he has the looks of a first team All-American as he’s tied for the FBS lead in interceptions and has 14 more tackles than anyone on USC’s roster.

This isn’t to say the Gamecocks have been perfect defensively. There’s still some concern against the run, and linebacker depth has become increasingly short after Sherrod Greene went down at Georgia.

However, White’s unit has done just about everything it could’ve been asked for and then some.

Special Teams: B+

The only thing keeping this from being a bit higher has been South Carolina’s propensity for penalties in kick and punt coverage. Other than that, the Gamecocks have been sharp as can be on special teams.

Kicker Parker White is still a perfect 9 for 9 on field goal attempts this season and he’s continuing to creep closer to South Carolina’s all-time scoring record.

Punter Kai Kroeger flashed his leg and his arm on Saturday when he connected with Payton Mangrum for a 44-yard touchdown pass on a fake punt that kept USC in it against Tennessee despite falling well behind early.

Kroeger — who holds White’s kicks in addition to punting duties — has also been a nice tool in flipping field position with an average of 2.3 punts inside the 20-yard line per game and at least 1.1 kicks of more than 50 yards per contest.

Throw in running back Juju McDowell, who’s been electric in the kickoff return game, and this group has been stellar under special teams coordinator Pete Lembo’s guidance.

Coaching: C+

This isn’t so much an indictment of Beamer, but more just the product of a first-year staff getting its feet wet.

There are positives to be taken away from the first half of the season: Doty’s emergence, Justin Stepp’s work with the receivers, just about everything Clayton White has done. But South Carolina has had some puzzling decisions early in 2021.

Beamer has been lauded for his feel for the game and when to push the buttons on aggression or play conservatively by previous bosses. The Gamecocks have certainly been aggressive in attacking fourth downs — they rank second in the SEC and tied for 16th nationally with 14 fourth-down attempts. But a lack of sharpness offensively coupled with an offensive line that hasn’t quite held up like we thought it might drags this grade down.

South Carolina has had moments of excellence. Its also had mind-boggling decision-making. (The non-onside kick trailing Kentucky by a score with two timeouts and under three minutes left comes to mind.)

Remember, this is still Beamer’s first head coaching job and there’s a grace period to be had there. All things considered, this could be a lot worse.

Average Grade: B-

The games remaining on South Carolina’s schedule:

Saturday : vs. Vanderbilt, 4 p.m. (SEC Network)

Oct. 23: at Texas A&M

Nov. 6: vs. Florida

Nov. 13: at Missouri

Nov. 20: vs. Auburn

Nov. 27: at Clemson

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