Tennessee’s Week 1 Opponent Preview: South Carolina

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    (Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics)

    2019 Record: 4-8 overall (3-5, SEC)

    Head Coach: Will Muschamp, 5th year, 26-25 overall (15-17, SEC)
    Location: Columbia, South Carolina

    Leading Returning Passer: Ryan Hilinski (So.) — 236-of-406, 2,357 yards, 11 TD, 5 INT
    Leading Returning Rusher: Kevin Harris (So.) — 21 carries, 179 yards, 4 TD, 8.5 YPC
    Leading Returning Receiver: Shi Smith (Sr.) — 43 receptions, 489 yards, 2 TD
    Leading Returning Tackler: Ernest Jones (Sr.) — 97 tackles (59 solo), 5.5 TFL

    Total 2019 Offense Rank: 95th (371.9)
    2019 Passing Offense Rank:
    74th (222.3)
    2019 Rushing Offense Rank: 82nd (149.6)
    2019 Scoring Offense Rank: 104th (22.4)

    Total 2019 Defense Rank: 67th (393.3)
    Passing Defense Rank: 88th (235.3)
    Rushing Defense Rank: 66th (158.0)
    Scoring Defense Rank: 53rd (26.1)

    Here’s a complete preview of Tennessee’s opponent this Saturday, the South Carolina Gamecocks.

    Offense

    South Carolina will have an unexpected quarterback at the helm this Saturday when the Vols and Gamecocks kick off their respective seasons. Sophomore Ryan Hilinski may be the team’s top returning passer, but he was unable to win the starting job this fall camp. Instead, Carolina will start Colorado State graduate transfer Collin Hill.

    Hill follows first year offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to Columbia. Bobo takes over following an abysmal year of offense for the Gamecocks that led to Bryan McClendon being pushed out the door. Hill started for Bobo at Colorado State, but was unable to stay healthy, as he tore his ACL three different times. When healthy, Hill completed 61% of his passes for 3,323 yards, 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He appeared in 18 games, making 11 starts.

    Hill should be well-protected by a South Carolina offensive line that is considered the deepest position on the team, as well as the most-experienced with seven linemen returning who have started at least one game. The interior of the line is where it is strongest, with All-SEC left guard Sadarius Hutcherson, redshirt junior center Eric Douglas and redshirt sophomore right guard Jovaughn Gwyn leading the charge.

    The tackle position along the offensive line has seen quite a bit of competition throughout fall camp. Though starting tackles have not yet been selected, junior Dylan Wonnum will man one of the tackle spots — most likely left tackle. One of junior Jazston Turrentine, redshirt freshman Jakai Moore and sophomore Jaylin Nichols will win the job opposite of Wonnum, and all three are considered interchangeable.

    Hill should provide a sense of consistency at the quarterback position. He’ll also be well-protected. The big question surrounding this South Carolina offense, however, is whether or not the skill positions will be able to step up and produce big plays.

    At wide receiver, outside of senior wide receiver Shi Smith, there isn’t a ton of promise. The Gamecocks will start the season with a two-deep that features one senior, two sophomores and three true freshmen. The unit has been been one of the biggest question marks surrounding the team since last November when lack of depth showed after injuries to Bryan Edwards and Smith. With opt outs from redshirt senior Randrecous Davis and redshirt junior OrTre Smith, the lack of depth still remains. Smith is the only receiver on the listed two-deep that has played in more than 12 games and has more than 10 catches.

    Tight end should provide a bit of relief for a South Carolina wide receiver room that lacks proven playmakers. Senior Nick Muse, who is considered a future NFL tight end by most, is expected to be a big part of the game plan each week. He gives Carolina a big target in the passing game and is someone who can pick up yards after the catch, though he is coming off of a torn ACL.

    The running back position is yet another position of concern for South Carolina this season. Freshman Marshawn Lloyd was going to be the starting running back and had hopes of replicating the production of a fellow highly-touted back that signed with the Gamecocks — Marcus Lattimore.

    But Lloyd tore his ACL and sophomore Kevin Harris will be the starting back against the Vols. Harris was considered the most consistent back in camp as he competed for the job with junior college signee Zaquandre White, redshirt sophomore Deshaun Fenwick and freshman Rashad Amos. Harris will start, but you can expect to see a little bit of each back.

    The x-factor on offense for South Carolina is fullback Adam Prentice, a graduate transfer from Colorado State who also followed Mike Bobo to Columbia. He’ll look to improve a South Carolina rushing attack that has struggled for much of the Muschamp-era in Carolina. Prentice had 18 carries for 65 yards and 18 receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown, and over 37 games, started 14 games.

    Defense

    South Carolina’s defense has always been stingy under Muschamp. This year, the Gamecocks are tasked with replacing key players along their defensive front following.

    The most notable departure from Carolina’s defense is defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, who was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. They must also replace starting tackle Kobe Smith. They’ll look to do so with redshirt senior Keir Thomas, junior Rick Sandidge and sophomore Zacch Pickens. The three have combined to play in 75 games during their career.

    There are more answers at defensive end for Carolina than tackle. All-SEC Second Team member Aaron Sterling is a returning starter who tied for the team-lead in sacks with six in 2019. Sterling has 78 career tackles and 16.0 career tackles for loss.

    Opposite of Sterling in Muschamp’s defense is the BUCK position, an instrumental piece as the key pass rusher. Carolina will have a new starting BUCK this year following the departure of DJ Wonnum who had 29.5 career tackles for loss. Junior Kingsley Enagbare will look to fill Wonnum’s shoes after moving to the BUCK position during the spring. Last season, Enagbare was third on the team in tackles for loss with 7.0.

    At linebacker, the heart-and-soul of the defense stands in the middle in senior Ernest Jones. The captain of the team led the team in tackles a season ago and will do so again in 2020. Jones missed a good chunk of fall camp due to an appendectomy, but is expected to be fine for the opener.

    Standing next to Jones will be Brad Johnson at the SAM linebacker position, and senior Sherrod Greene at the WILL linebacker. Greene started at SAM last year, but makes the switch to WILL and brings speed to the spot and some added athleticism. Greene is looked at right now as a valuable contributor. As is Johnson, who will take over at SAM after transitioning from the BUCK spot where he’s been a backup since his freshman season. The Gamecocks don’t always have a SAM linebacker on the field, so Johnson will see most of the snaps when the defense is in a traditional 4-3 defense.

    The secondary is the strength of the South Carolina defense. Carolina arguably possesses the best cornerback duo in the SEC with junior Israel Mukuamu and junior Jaycee Horn. Mukuamu is a likely first round pick and has made 14 consecutive starts, and has five interceptions during that time period. As a sophomore, Horn had 40 tackles with a team-high nine pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

    South Carolina is also strong at the safety position with junior RJ Roderick and sophomore Jammie Robinson. Roderick has been really good for the Gamecocks. But he’s not always been consistent, sometimes going for the big play, versus just making the right play. He’s been caught out of position and given up yards that should have never happened. Robinson quietly made the SEC All-Freshman team last year and finished third on Carolina’s defense with 62 tackles. He’ll slide over to the nickel position at times when the Gamecocks enter their five defensive back set. Robinson would be considered the starter at nickle, but the defense will primarily be run in the 4-3 alignment.

    The Gamecocks allowed 26.1 points per game last year, which ranked 10th in the SEC and 53rd in the nation. In SEC games, they surrendered 27.6 points per game, which ranked ninth among conference teams and 62nd in the nation. South Carolina ranked 10th in the conference in yards per play allowed (5.53), which is lower than it has ranked in that category since 2015.

    Special Teams

    At punter, South Carolina loses Jospeh Charleton to the NFL, and will now have a true freshman at the position in Kai Kroeger, a lefty who won the job during fall camp.

    The kicking position provides much more certainty as Parker White returns for his fourth season as South Carolina’s starting kicker. Over three seasons, White has made 71.4 percent of his career field goal attempts, with a career long of 50-yards. White is 32-of-35 from inside 40 yards (91.4 percent) and is 96-for-97 on PAT attempts. His 45 made field goals and 63 field goal attempts both rank fourth on the school’s all-time list.

    True freshman Mitch Jeter will handle kickoffs and serve as White’s backup.

    Wide receiver Shi Smith will serve as Carolina’s kick returner while fellow receiver Dakereon Joyner is the off-returner. Smith has returned 18 kicks during his career for an average 22.3 yards, but has not returned one for a touchdown. Joyner has not returned a kickoff.

    Safety Jammie Robinson will serve as the team’s punt returner. Robinson has yet to return a punt in his career, but the sophomore returned two kickoffs for an average of 19.0 yards per game

    Ben McKee
    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He grew up an Army brat and lived in Alabama for a bit, but he bleeds orange. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also a co-host on the RTI Live Show and RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.