South Carolina is at a pivotal juncture.
After floundering through Saturday’s 44-14 throttling at Texas A&M, USC heads into a bye week needing two wins in its final four games to reach bowl eligibility.
With the campaign nearing a close and South Carolina sitting days away from a season-defining stretch, The State attempted to contact 35 former Gamecocks players to get their thoughts on this year’s team. Nine lent their voices to this piece.
The group includes eight offensive players and one defensive player who all played at South Carolina over the last 25 years. They are not identified by name to ensure they could speak freely.
These answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Ben Portnoy: What do you make of South Carolina’s offense this year?
Player 2: “I’m really kind of confused, man, because, for one, I don’t feel like we have an identity. We’re not a running team. We’re not a passing team. We just don’t have an identity on offense.
I don’t know if Kevin Harris is still hurt, but with the group of backs that we have, I feel like our running game should be a lot better than what it is. (Offensive line-wise), I’m not really sure. I talked to some former players that I played with and I asked their opinions on the (offensive line) play from what I see and they’re not real happy with it either. It’s a lot of little, easy blown assignments. It’s good to talk to former guys, because we all were out there. So we understand how it is to maybe miss an assignment here or there.”
Player 4: “My thing is, no matter how you feel about it, you’re getting paid millions of dollars a year to do a job, and that job isn’t working out. I don’t think you can take it personally if you have to make a change (at play-caller) and, at this stage, I don’t think that would be the most insane thing to do.
Outside of the play-calling aspect, I like (offensive line coach Greg Adkins), everything I’ve heard about that guy is that he’s doing a great job and that he cares about the players. He’s trying to make them better. I think there’s some other (cog) that’s not working well with that system. But we’ve got a phenomenal talent level at the O-line (and) running back position. It just seems like there’s something that needs to be tweaked to make it great. But I don’t think that it’s a lack of caring, indifference, etc. — especially from what I’ve seen, and this is the thing that I am the most proud of as a player and as a fan.
It seemed like in the last regime, we had a lot of guys who were out there for themselves. And so when things got slightly difficult, they started to point fingers at other people and not at themselves or at the unit. That’s the one thing I will say without a shadow of a doubt that I love about (Shane) Beamer and about his current program is that when things are good, everyone points at everyone else. But when things are bad, they point internally and they try to fix it themselves. It may not come out to have the greatest record at the end of the year, but that is what builds a great program.”
Player 5: “It’s lackluster, but, I mean, what can you expect? You put in a new scheme, new terminology for these players and they’re having to learn something completely different. That’s the difference between last year’s rushing and this year’s rushing and being able to open up the passing game. With time they’ll get better. I just feel like it’s going to take some time.”
BP: How much of the offense’s struggles falls on lacking a consistent quarterback presence given Luke Doty’s injury status and Zeb Noland being thrust into things?
Player 1: “That plays a huge piece. Quarterback is the most important position on the field. And when your starter — who is really young and then gets hurt — is having to play on a bum (foot) and part of his game is being elusive (it’s tough). And then taking (Noland) who was a coach and putting him out on the field to play quarterback for you — that’s an interesting little deal.
Starting at Georgia — now I know (Noland) didn’t really play much of the game — starting at Texas A&M, those are not exactly the easiest places to play. So hats off to him for being so courageous. Without Zeb I can’t say that we win the East Carolina game and we definitely don’t win Vanderbilt. We’d really be struggling without him.”
Player 2: “I’m so glad you asked me about the quarterback position, because I can tell you — and this is coming from a lot of former players who actually played — we like (Jason Brown). I like him. I don’t know if he doesn’t know the playbook, or what it is. He was in against backups against Texas A&M, but his pocket presence, his command on offense, the way he ran around, he kept his eyes downfield, strong arm.
That’s really my first time seeing him in action and I don’t care if it’s backups or not, it’s still SEC football. The kid looked good. I just want to understand or know the reason why he hasn’t played more.
Don’t get me wrong, nothing against Zeb. He has given it his best shot. He’s done great. He’s that guy who knows the offense and he can still throw the ball around a little bit.”
Player 4: “Shout out to Zeb. This is my personal opinion, but the dude should go straight into the (South Carolina) Hall of Fame for what he’s done for our program. That has been such a pillar of this season is the (graduate assistant) wanting to help out this program. That is unreal.
I think Luke has been playing hurt — and this is just personal opinion — it looks like he’s just been making it work, which is just not how that works. The running quarterback position, if you’re running with (one) functioning wheel, it’s just not going to work. I appreciate what he’s trying to do, but it seems like a situation where we got to just limp by with that situation happening.”
BP: How do you grade the quarterback play this year, good, bad or indifferent?
Player 3: “I think everyone has very high expectations this year because Coach Beamer has been around. He’s been around winning programs and successful programs pretty much his whole coaching career started back with his dad (legendary Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer) and advancing even during his time here at Carolina.
The expectations are very high, which they should be because we returned a lot of talent. But I just think as far as the quarterbacks, I would just say I think it’s a confidence thing. There’s a lack of confidence. So I wouldn’t say good or bad, I would just say a lack of confidence.”
Player 6: “It’s been a work in progress, I could say. Things could have been worse. Things could have been a lot worse. But I think we’ve been able to kind of maximize each player’s best ability up until now, I think.”
Player 8: “I would say it’s average play. Again, it doesn’t all fall on the quarterbacks’ shoulders. I’ve seen a lot of dropped balls. I’ve seen — being a former offensive lineman — I’ve seen missed blocks and missed reads on blitzes. So that affects (their) play. My grade would be average at this point and also (Doty) not being healthy, ‘cause even when he came back, he wasn’t 100%.”
BP: What have you seen from the offensive line and how does that potentially affect the rest of the offense?
Player 3: “It’s all about preparation and being sure of everything that you’re doing up front as an offensive lineman. I’ve spoken with a couple of offensive linemen. I’ve pretty much been in charge of controlling what the offensive linemen do up front and adjusting to blocking schemes, checks and things like that.
Once you look up front and you think about the way the system has been handled, we’re not really getting to plays relayed to the offensive line almost until like 10 to eight seconds on the clock. There’s no time to make adjustments, there’s no time to identify maybe who could be a blitzer. There’s no time for the quarterback to really scan and make adjustments there because the plays are coming from up top to the sideline to the field. And that’s one of those things that with our offense, suddenly it’s so confusing to watch as a former player, or to watch as someone who knows football (and) has been an offensive coordinator.”
Player 5: “I keep going back to it — it’s basic fundamentals. If those big guys up front can get push, you’re going to run better. If they’re protecting that quarterback, you’re gonna pass better and, ultimately, you’re going to run better.
There’s so much that goes into having a good offensive line. I think the terminology for those guys this year has been something that they’re trying to learn. I feel like we’ve got four more games, three more home games, so you’ve got to use every chance, every rep you get as a building block, and I feel like they’ll start coming around.”
Player 8: “You look at Tom Brady, he’s not back there getting hit. At the end of the game, he’s clean. Not to compare Tom to Luke (Doty), but, at the end of the day, I think it holds true. Because if you’re not protecting the quarterback, number one, he’s getting hit. And then say he’s not getting sacked, but he’s getting hit, that plays on the psyche. But also, too, now you have to go to the run because you’re not being efficient in your passing game and then you become one-dimensional and, as a coach, you’re almost hamstrung.”
Player 9: “For one reason or another the offensive line has not been able to adjust to the current scheme. Blocking in all aspects has been atrocious, exposing lack of athleticism to pass block and strength to run block. Certainly an inability to pass downfield has exacerbated the problems, because opposing teams can dedicate more defenders to the box. The line has shown confusion and an overall inability to protect QB or open any significant holes.”
BP: We hear a lot about South Carolina running a pro-style offensive system. What does that mean, what goes into running that effectively and how does that compare to what we’ve seen this year?
Player 1: “(A) pro-style offense is 100% predicated on the offensive line and running the football. If you can’t do that, you’re going to struggle. And that’s what we’ve done. We don’t have an experienced quarterback. NFL systems are complicated and (have) a lot of run checks, protection checks and a lot of output audibly at the line of scrimmage.
Zeb is experienced, but he hopped in this offense back in May and then in August he’s having to go out and execute it. (He) probably doesn’t fully understand it. It can be a challenge. And so I don’t know if they’re doing too much and it’s confusing the guys, or we just don’t have the guys.”
Player 4: “I mean look at it from literally where it comes from — the pro-style is if your Tom Bradys and your Aaron Rodgers’ are good, then you’re great. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the tools are. Look at what Tom Brady has won Super Bowls with. Those are not household name receivers — they kind of are because they were made that way, but you put them with anyone else (and) they’re fired.
I think with that being said, with what we have in the quarterback position, Doty is trying his best. But, again, Zeb — it’s not really where he is great at and also (he was) thrust into the position. I (would) think that you would try to adapt to what you have at that position. The pro-style works. It’s obviously there for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. But it seems like with our personnel you’d rather go more of an RPO-type system.”
Player 9: “There is a reason not many college teams run true pro-style offenses. The terminology and precision required is very complex and the very best players are executing that offense on Sundays. When you ask why teams don’t use a lot of plays you see on Sunday, that is the reason.
As coaches you need to know your personnel. You have to identify what your team does best and find a system to maximize it or adjust the current system to maximize strengths. (South Carolina) has not done a good job of either. There is no offensive identity.”
BP: On paper, the running game seems to have taken a step back this year even with a stable of talented tailbacks. Why do you think that is, or is there anything you’ve noticed at that position?
Player 1: “Without giving you the super long football terminology, I think that the two running schemes are different from last year to this year. (Former South Carolina offensive coordinator) Mike Bobo (is) known for always having good run games wherever he’s been, and Kevin Harris isn’t 100% either. He broke a lot of tackles last year. So it’s all a combination of everything, to be honest. ... I hope that it works, but through eight games you kind of know who you are and it kind of leaves people like, ‘oh, well s—.’
You hope that changes, but you’d almost be too optimistic to think that it (will). Unless something dramatically changes — whether they start calling completely different plays or new personnel — it’s probably not going to be much different than what we’ve seen so far, which hasn’t hasn’t been what has been expected.”
Player 5: “Nah. That’s a great group of running backs in that room right now. To be honest with you — I’ll just keep going back to it — everybody’s a part of a team. So if one link of that offensive line is out of sync, I don’t care who you got back there running the ball. (Tennessee Titans running back) Derrick Henry, if he’s constantly having to just shed a guy on him every play, eventually that’s going to take a toll. You’re not going to be as efficient.”
Player 7: “(Offensive line) looks confused on blocking assignments. Could be the terminology. Definitely a lack of communication between the (offensive line), (quarterback) and (running back).”
BP: Eight games into a season, what has to change or improve down the stretch for South Carolina to get bowl eligible?
Player 1: “They need more explosive plays and I’ll stand behind that. … It’s hard to sustain 12- and 13-play drives each and every drive. You’ve got to find a way to get explosive plays, and we just haven’t had a lot of them this year. I think that’s been a huge, huge hurt and hindrance on our part.
A lot of times when we score there are big plays involved. It’s difficult, especially in the conference we play in and the athletes we face. First year of an offense, you’ve got to get big plays and if we want to win some of these ball games, we’ve got to have some big plays.
Defense has given us a lot of opportunities. They’re a scrappy bunch. They’re not an elite defense, but they’re very good and they’ve done a good job this year to get us in really, really good situations. If we don’t have a good defense you’re looking at outside looking in. I mean, golly, we would have only won one game.
Special teams — unfortunately they had that punt return touchdown (against Texas A&M) — but besides that they’ve really played lights out this year.
We figure it out on offense, start generating upwards of 24, 28 points, we’re gonna have a chance to win at least three of the next four we play, or at least two to get us bowl eligible.”
Player 3: “Just giving the defense more time off the field, more time to recover. When you got guys like (Kingsley) Enagbare, (Jabari) Ellis and (Zacch) Pickens, you take away from how they’re able to affect the game, (or) impact the game when they’re always on the field.
I think what we need to do is start putting together some more drives, allowing special teams to be more effective in the game, take points when points are there — we’ve got a great placekicker in Parker (White). We need to take those points, not leave them on the board, and just not kill drives.”
Player 4: “I love even just the fact that we have talked about bowl eligibility, because, at least from what I saw last year, our program was actively on fire. Players weren’t in it for the long haul. They were leaving middle of the season once there was even a whiff of a coaching change. There’s so much that was wrong in the last program and it’s not judging it personally, but there was a change made for a reason.
My expectations for this season were (to) work on the culture and let’s see how many games we win. I know everyone’s very frustrated with pulling it out versus (Vanderbilt), but that was a game we should have lost and we found a way to win.
If we go to a bowl game, great. If we don’t, I don’t care. … Bowl game or not, I’m very happy with the strides we’ve made this season. There’s still plenty of improvement, obviously, because you watch what Tennessee and Georgia are doing and you get frustrated as all get out, because screw both those programs. ... I know Clemson kind of sucks right now, but that is still a team full of five-stars. That is from a guy who’s faced much better, athletically gifted people than myself. That is a tough job to do, no matter what the team’s record is.
I think we’re definitely trending in the right direction. If we lose the rest of the games, if our guys go out there and fight every single game no matter what the score is, I don’t know what more you’d want out of a program than that.”