You know how it goes. I spoke with Kody Timmers at Garnet and Black Attack about the upcoming game. He’ll also post my answers to his questions over there, so check out their site later today and drop by to leave some cordial comments.
1) Man, Ryan Hilinski sure looked good in replacing Bentley last week. I’m sure you guys are even more excited/enamored by the true freshman showing out at that level. What can you tell us about him? What were the expectations around him as a recruit? Do you think he can sustain the success he saw in his debut throughout the season? And Will Bentley ever win the job back if/when he recovers?
There’s definitely a lot of buzz and excitement around Ryan Hilinski right now. We’re all thrilled he got off to such a great start in his debut, even though it was “just” Charleston Southern -- it was an emotional game for him, and it’s always awesome to see a guy ball out in that situation. It’s no exaggeration to say that Gamecock fans got immediately attached to him as a recruit, and folks have been viewing him as the quarterback of the future ever since. With a schedule as brutal as ours, it’s difficult to predict how this season will unfold for Hilinski -- like any true freshman, I’m sure he’ll have moments of brilliance juxtaposed with baffling decisions, especially since he’ll be going through such a trial by fire (and, frankly, the team around him needs to play better, too). An interesting pro comparison I’ve seen is Philip Rivers, although hopefully unlike Phil, he’ll be stuffing the stat sheet WITHOUT his team consistently letting him down.
Unfortunately for Bentley, I suspect his time at USC has drawn to a close. It’s possible he’ll return next season, but with the market for grad transfer quarterbacks being as hot and as viable as it is, it’s probably in his best interest to go elsewhere. I suppose this opinion could look foolish if Hilinski ends up flaming out and leaving the door open for him here after all, but I wouldn’t bank on that happening. It’s definitely a tough situation, and I hate it for Bentley.
2) After Deebo Samuel went on to the NFL, the talk was that senior Bryan Edwards would step in to that go-to receiver role. In two games, he’s caught 6 balls and leads the team with 119 receiving yards and a couple of touchdowns. Not bad, but that’s only on pace 714 yards in a season. Do you think he continues to grow into a featured role, or is your passing yards going to be much more spread out?
Bryan Edwards is an interesting case. You certainly can’t argue that he’s been a disappointment, but I think many expected him to grow into the next Alshon Jeffery and that never quite materialized. On its face, that’s a weird thing for me to say, because he’s currently chasing various program receiving records and should end up capturing most, if not all, of them this year. But he hasn’t been that dominating, wow factor talent capable of taking over game. He’s just been quietly productive, and unfortunately has also gone through some stretches marred by drops. I think Edwards will continue to be a focal point of this offense, but I think the ball will continue to be spread out as well.
3) How has transfer Tavien Feaster looked at running back, and how does the rotation between him and Rico Dowdle work? (both in practice and by the coaches’ intentions... which we all know are often two different things)
The running back rotation has typically been a bit of a mystery under Will Muschamp with no real rhyme or reason, although I think that has less to do with coaching style and much more to do with the lack of a true playmaker emerging at the position. I’d say Feaster has looked good and promising so far -- compared to the rest of our backs, he seems to have a little more wiggle and ability to make something out of nothing, which is an attribute that has been sorely lacking in this backfield for years. Dowdle remains the starter, however, and is likely still our best all-around back at the moment -- in fact, some observers credit Feaster here, as Dowdle appears to have upped his game since Feaster’s arrival. His main issue is inconsistency, but he’s also experienced more than his fair share of injury woes. If he can stay healthy this season, that’s great news for this offense, especially with Hilinski now at the reins.
...of course, you should REALLY be asking me about true freshman Kevin Harris, who went off against Charleston Southern to the tune of 147 yards on six carries with three touchdowns. He’s clearly a future Heisman candidate. (Haha, just kidding. Unless...?)
4) From what I’ve heard, your cornerback duo of Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu are a formidable pair. Do they look like they are living up to expectations this season? And what’s it like watching a 6’4” dude play cornerback? That just seems nuts.
Ha, watching Mukuamu’s tall, lanky frame range around the field is definitely a change from the prototypically smaller cornerbacks we’ve had. In general, Gamecock fans are high on both him and Horn, but it’s fair to say they had a rough start to the season against North Carolina. On a critical third down, Horn had a surefire interception go right through his hands on what looked like a Madden glitch in real life, and Mukuamu was caught playing his man and not watching the ball on the touchdown that started UNC’s comeback. They’re still a talented pair with a lot of potential -- and no defensive back doesn’t have moments like those -- but they’re in need of a bounce back performance at the moment.
5) What unit on the Gamecocks’ defense are you most concerned about?
I’m pretty disappointed in the defensive line right now. All offseason, the talk (and assumption) was that we finally had a good mix of talent, health, and depth to shore up the unit and turn in something other than godawful performances against the run. Unfortunately, UNC pretty much road-graded us, and while they do have a couple of talented backs, it was still shocking to see just how easily we lost contain. There were several frustrating near-sacks that UNC’s Sam Howell managed to shake off or step out of as well, which is one of my biggest pet peeves. The defense, in general, feels like it’s more of a rough draft than it probably should be at this point in Muschamp’s tenure, but I’m really hoping that it was just Week 1 rust when it comes to the line. Otherwise, we’re really gonna be in for it against this schedule if we continue giving up 200+ rushing yards a game.
6) From your knowledge about Alabama, what scheme, position group, or personnel matchup do you think the Gamecocks are most likely to be able to exploit?
I’m gonna be totally honest here: I’m not seeing many signs for hope. It’s possible we have an edge in the kicking game (#BamaKickers), but Parker White is known to be inconsistent as well. I’m just hoping we get in and get out with as few injuries as possible, and maybe get some solid reps for younger guys.
6) What are the expectations in your fanbase for how this season will go? And are you personally in line with that, or do you expect something different from the team?
Expectations were kind of all over the map before this season started. On the balance, I’d say most people were a lot more optimistic than I was -- a decent amount of folks were calling for 7-8 wins (possibly 9 with a bowl), while I felt 4-6 was more realistic with this schedule. The North Carolina game was a very, very bitter pill to swallow, and while my expectations haven’t changed, I think a lot of people have correspondingly lowered theirs. Obviously I had no way of knowing Bentley would get injured, but even before that, I just didn’t see South Carolina getting to six wins without an absolute struggle. I figured 2019 would be one of those years in which the team actually improved, but the record wouldn’t reflect it. TBD.
7) Finally, what’s your game prediction?
I think the spread (which I’ve seen climb as high as Alabama -26 at some books) is a fair starting point, although with a true freshman quarterback getting his first real start against a team like the Tide, I’m living in fear of a 56-3 kind of debacle. I’ll split the difference there and go with Alabama 45-10. It’s gonna be a long, hot afternoon in Columbia.
Well there you go. Now go check out their site for the other half of our Q&A. (SPOILER: I’m higher on USC than he is, it seems)