HOOVER, AL (WIS) - Entering Will Muschamp's first year, many people who follow SEC football did not have the South Carolina Gamecocks making it to a bowl or even winning six games.
But they did. Despite early questions about the team and how they'd perform, they won six games and appeared in the Birmingham Bowl last season.
This year, there aren't as many questions and there is a lot of confidence surrounding Muschamp's young squad.
"We're still a very young football team," Muschamp said. "We had 70 percent of our rosters still freshmen and sophomores. We only have 11 seniors. 19 first-time starters last year on last year's team and seven true freshman, which those two stats tie for the most in the country."
Their youth, however, could be a blessing in disguise. To find an example of that, look no further than Jake Bentley. As a freshman, Bentley started the last seven games for the Gamecocks where he completed 65.8 percent of his passes and threw for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns. As great as Bentley was a year ago, the world almost didn't see what he was capable of.
"After we had lost to Georgia, I went home. That was a Sunday game because of the hurricane. And I went home that night and was just kind of going through in my mind just thinking what we need to do to improve," Muschamp said. "We are going into an open week. We are not going to have time for reps. We're not going to be in a game-plan mode trying to get somebody ready, that sort of thing. To be honest with you, I called Coach (Ray) Tanner. I said, 'Am I wrong to think we need to play a high school senior?' He said, 'Absolutely not. I'm not telling you what to do. You can do whatever you want to do.' He said,'You know, if your gut tells you to do it, do it.' So, I went into the office Monday morning. I told Kurt (Roper) we're going to open it up. Kurt agreed with that and we move forward from there."
As good as Bentley was a year ago, he certainly hopes to improve. In order to do that, however, he'll have to thrive in situations outside of his comfort zone.
"You're always learning and every quarterback is trying to get better,":' Bentley said. "So, I'll never be in a comfort zone because there is always more to learn, more of the defense to study up on. But I'll just have more experience with environments on the road and it will be good for me this year."
Bentley can take solace in having a big target in Hayden Hurst. Initially brought in as a wide receiver at USC, Hurst set records for most catches and receiving yards by a tight end last year and could be pivotal in helping the offense make even greater strides this season.
"He knows what it takes to win and he drills it into everybody's heads when we're out there," Gamecocks wide receiver Deebo Samuel said. "
Samuel is another target that Bentley will have available to him this year. The former Chapman High star dealt with injuries over the last two years and the Gamecocks are hoping to keep him out of the trainer's room and on the field.
"Well, that's one thing we've got to do is keep him healthy," Muschamp said. "He's had some soft tissue issues at high school at Chapman and then at South Carolina. So, that's something that we monitor through our catapult system and things. We make sure his mileage is not as high so he doesn't risk those injuries. We really harped on him, the hydration levels that he's got to hit every day to be able to understand that that's part of the pool process, as far as soft tissues are concerned."
In 10 games last year, Samuel led all USC receivers with 59 catches for 783 yards. This year, the Gamecocks hope to build on that mark.
"He's an electric guy with the ball in his hands," Muschamp said. "We have to find multiple ways to get him the ball. That's our plan going into the season. I would certainly endorse having him for the entire year."
The questions South Carolina has come from the defensive side of the ball. Up front, the Gamecocks will rely on Taylor Stallworth, Ulric Jones and Dante Sawyer, but Muschamp knows his team has to start filling in some other blanks soon.
"We have a lot of unknowns. We've got some questions that need to be answered. Matter of fact, I was finishing scripting our first 11 practices last night, and our 11th practice is going to be a scrimmage, and that's going to be D-Day for a lot of these young guys. We need to make a decision on the who and the what, who is going to be playing and what can they handle. We need to do it early, because we open up with NC State, then we go to Missouri, and then we welcome Kentucky at home, which we've lost to for three straight years."
One player that Muschamp and fans alike are glad to see back in uniform in Skai Moore. The Nagurski Trophy Watch List selection did not play last season due to injury. However, he was the unquestioned leader of the defense two years ago. Moore led the Gamecocks in tackles (111) and interceptions (4) and the Carolina coaching staff is hoping he just as disruptive this season against opposing offenses.
"He's a playmaker and a guy we're really excited about. Been through an awful lot this year as far as the adversity he's been through... Thought about coming out a couple times. I think he made two very mature decisions to come back. Really excited to see him play this fall."
South Carolina will hold their first practice on July 31. They'll open the season at Bank of America Stadium in a neutral site game against North Carolina State on Sept. 2.