CHARLOTTE, NC (WIS) - Entering the second year of the Will Muschamp, the expectations are once again high for the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Coming off a 6-7 year, the Gamecocks are looking to build on a campaign that nearly saw them capture first place late in the season. That building process starts with a neutral site game in Charlotte against North Carolina State.
"I know our guys are excited about playing a very good veteran NC State football team," Muschamp said. "You've got 18 returning starters, eight senior starters on defense. Six of them are in the front seven.
The Wolfpack returns 11 senior starters this season including highly-touted defensive end Bradley Chubb. The 6-4, 275-pounder out of Marietta, Ga., was a disruptive force for NC State collecting a team-high 22 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks as a junior. Without question, he's a player the Gamecocks will be keeping an eye on throughout Saturday's game.
But Chubb isn't the only member of NC State's front seven that Carolina will have to worry about. The Wolfpack also have senior linebacker Airius Moore, who finished his junior year second in tackles for loss (13.5) and third in total tackles (86). With Chubb and Moore leading the way last year, the Wolfpack surrendered an average of 22.8 points per game.
""They're very disruptive. They do a very good job of rushing four guys," Muschamp said. "They can get to the quarterback with four guys rushing. They're going to do a good job attacking your protections to get some one-on-one matchups you've got to be careful with. They do a good job stemming what I call the 'bear front" a lot, creating one-on-one matchups across the board with a linebacker rushing. With the one-on-one matchups, you've got to be sure you give enough variety in protection to keep your quarterback upright. They're also very disruptive in the run game. They've recruited extremely well there. They've evaluated very well, and they've developed their players very well up front."
Offensively, the Gamecocks return Ryan Finley as the starting quarterback. Last year, Finley threw for 3,059 yards and 18 touchdowns. This year, he'll have one of his favorite targets in Jaylen Samuels on the field with him. As a junior, Samuels led the Wolfpack with seven touchdown catches. He also led the team with 55 receptions while finishing second on the team in receiving yards with 565.
"Well, he's a really good football player," Muschamp said. "They find very creative ways to hand him the ball, throw him the ball, toss him the ball. He's a very effective playmaker. I have a lot of respect for him. I don't know him personally. When you have this much time to prepare, you watch a lot of tape. I certainly really enjoy watching him play. You got to have awareness of where he is and the guys have to have understanding of when he lines up in certain areas. There's a reason why he is there and just have a good concept for understanding those things."
The Gamecocks will look to Deebo Samuel to lead the charge on offense. In 10 games, Samuel had 59 catches for 783 yards and a touchdown. With those numbers from a year ago, Muschamp made it clear that Samuel will need to be just as productive this year.
"Regardless of whether it's early or late, he needs to be involved," Muschamp said. "There's no question. Deebo's a very terrific playmaker, a guy in space that's hard to bring down with one tackler. He's got a very strong lower body but certainly is one of our playmakers along with Bryan Edwards along with Hayden Hurst and a good stable of running backs. We feel like we've got multiple guys that can certainly can hurt a defense and Deebo is a featured guy for us as well.
Defensively, the Gamecocks return six starters. However, the most notable returning player for USC is senior linebacker Skai Moore. After missing a year due to injury, he's ready to contribute for the Gamecocks along with the other linebackers behind Moore.
"His condition level is fine regardless of missing a season," Muschamp said of Moore. "That doesn't have anything to do with it. I've got confidence in Eldridge Thompson and Sherrod Greene, two guys that have continued to progress through camp in a very positive manner. Those guys are going to play. I told the defensive staff a couple days ago that we've got to script down our series as we move forward and make sure one of those guys is in the game with Skai or T.J. (Brunson) to make sure they've got a calming effect there as far as those things are concerned."
South Carolina takes on North Carolina State in the Belk College Kickoff at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte at 3 p.m. on Saturday.