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Alabama vs. South Carolina Preview: When the Gamecocks have the ball

Look out, there’s a freshman QB on the loose

NCAA Football: Charleston Southern at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Youv’e all heard it by now, so let’s get this one out of the way: Senior QB Jake Bentley looked awful in the season opener, then proceeded to break his foot and will miss the rest of the season. Freshman QB Ryan Hilinski stepped up to bat in week 2 and hit 80% of his passes for nearly 300 yards, including a couple of absolute dimes.

Hilinski was a pretty highly ranked 4-star pro-style QB recruit out of California just half a year ago, but that’s about the extent we know about him. It could have been a one-game fluke against an overmatched Charleston Southern, or he might be the next coming of Stephen Garcia.

We just don’t know, and I won’t even try to predict it.

The Gamecocks were actually a highly ranked offense in 2018— 21st overall in S&P+ ratings. Their rush game was fairly ignominious (87th overall ain’t great for an SEC program), but they were the 22nd ranked passing offense and shot up to 12th on passing downs.

A lot of that was due to wide receiver and tackle-breaker extraordinaire, Deebo Samuel (who also contributed to them being 28th overall in isoPPP+, a measure of an offense’s explosiveness) Well, Samuel has moved on to the pros, so the Gamecocks have turned to senior Bryan Edwards to pick up the load.

Edwards had nearly as many yards, if not as many touchdowns, as Samuel last season. At 6’3” 215, Edwards is a big, fast receiver who’s been a threat down the field his entire career, never putting up less than 590 yards in any of his three seasons. Two games in, he’s the only Gamecock receiver with more than 100 yards, but only 6 catches in 2 games isn’t exactly the kind of pace that makes one a go-to receiver.

There’s also 5’10 junior Shi Smith, who had 45 catches last season and already leads the team with 7 so far. He’s mostly been used on shorter routes, though, and has barely more than half the yards that Edwards does, despite having more catches.

At tight end, 4th year junior Kyle Markway is finally making his mark (I’m so sorry) with 6 catches so far. This has effectively doubled his career total in catches, and Markway is shaping up to be a reliable target in the middle of the field.

At running back, senior Rico Dowdle has been as explosive and tantalizing as he has been injured. After an outstanding freshman year with north of 750 yards, he broke a leg in 2017 and only got 250 yards in 8 games. He rebounded somewhat as a junior, but has still dealt with a myriad of injuries (broken leg, sports hernia, ankle issues, etc.) that have kept him from getting the playing time that USC fans have hoped for 3 years.

So far, though, he’s been quite impressive in 2019. He’s averaging 7.1 yards per carry and has a couple of touchdowns, despite sharing the workload with Clemson graduate transfer, Travien Feaster. The Gamecocks have made it well known that they prefer a 50/50 two-back system on offense, and Dowdle and Feaster have proven that accurate with 21 and 19 carries, respectively, so far.

Along the offensive line, the Gamecocks return a 4th year junior at left tackle in Sadarius Hutcherson, a 2018 Freshman All-American at right tackle in Dylan Wonnum, and a multi-year veteran at left guard in 6th year senior Donell Stanley. The center and right guard are young, new additions to the line, but the core of last season’s line remains.

In 2018, they were a mediocre run blocking line in pretty much every metric, other than that they did manage to keep the running backs from getting hit behind the line of scrimmage over 83% of the time (good for the 25th in the nation). In pass blocking, they continued that odd trend of being not-great on standard downs, but the 20th ranked overall in sack rate on passing downs. The whole team just got better on 3rd and long. Weird.

With a total unknown at QB in Ryan Hilinski, this is a tough one to predict. On one hand, he may absolutely melt under the pressure of suddenly being thrust into the spotlight against an Alabama defense. Or he may be the type of guy that just thrives in that situation. There’s really no way for us to know until Saturday.

Feaster and Dowdle may slip by and pick up a few yards here and there, but I don’t expect either one to break 60 yards rushing against the Alabama front 7. Trevon Diggs should match up well with Edwards on the outside and down the field due to his height, so I think more of the passing yards will come from Markway and Smith in the middle of the field.

Most interesting will be how Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings fare against the experienced and talented tackle duo of Hutcherson and Wonnum. Lewis has, thus far, looked to be channeling all of his pent up frustration from two years of injuries into every single pass rush, and it’s led to him looking like a potential 1st round draft pick. Meanwhile, Jennings looks twice as fast as he did last year, and quite possibly more motivated with Lewis rushing on the other end.

I think the Gamecocks put up 17 points on the Tide. A couple of busted plays early in the game give Alabama fans a little bit of indigestion, but they get shut out the 2nd and 3rd quarters before getting a touchdown in the last couple of minutes after the game is over.