Loaded offense gives Will Muschamp chance to change reputation as head coach

He has the best group of offensive skill-position players he’s ever had in leading a college program, and one of the more enviable quarterback situations in the SEC. This coming season at South Carolina, Will Muschamp also has something else.

A chance to finally drive a stake into the reputation that’s dogged him since his days at Florida: that he’s a defensive-minded coach who can’t build an offense.

He’s come by it honestly. Muschamp’s four seasons in Gainesville were defined by excellent recruiting classes, solid defenses, and ham-fisted offenses that ranked between 10th and last in the league in total offense. Muschamp’s first South Carolina team was one of the lowest-scoring teams in America until he took the redshirt off quarterback Jake Bentley, who saved the Gamecocks’ season.

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But even with that surge over the second half of last year, South Carolina still finished 13th in the SEC in total offense and last in scoring offense. Even with Bentley at the helm, there still were moments when the Gamecocks were too predictable. Even a vastly-improved offense couldn’t keep up with superior opponents such as Florida and Clemson late in the year.

There were a lot of reasons for all of that, including a porous offensive line that remains South Carolina’s top offensive concern entering the team’s opener Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., against N.C. State. But for all Muschamp did in turning around the Gamecocks last season — no small feat, given how far they had fallen — there remain Gamecocks fans who want to see this offense live up to its full potential, under a coach who’s never had such a thing happen.

South Carolina-Jake Bentley
The success of Jake Bentley and the Gamecocks offense this season will go a long way in changing the perception of Will Muschamp. (Hale McGranahan/SEC Country)

That offensive line aside, the pieces are there. An offense once rife with walk-ons on the two-deep in the final year under Steve Spurrier now has a budding star at quarterback, NFL prospects at wide receiver and tight end, and three running backs who figure to split time. If the Gamecocks average 20.8 points per game again this year, or even start out sluggishly against a vaunted Wolfpack defensive line, the shadow of Muschamp’s past offenses will loom large in the minds of anxious South Carolina fans.

To be fair, Muschamp always has said he doesn’t call plays. But he does demand that his offense be balanced, which surely influences the play-calling of co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper. We know Roper can oversee an offense that pushes tempo and rolls up numbers; he did it year after year under David Cutcliffe at Duke. Looking at the personnel on this South Carolina offense, you’re hard-pressed to believe he can’t do the same in Columbia.

Those are all reasons why this season stands as Muschamp’s best chance to shed his reputation as a coach who can build a great team on only one side of the football. Should Bentley stay healthy — the key to everything, given the Gamecocks’ lack of quarterback depth after the Brandon McIlwain transfer — the offensive show South Carolina put on in the Birmingham Bowl could well be a harbinger of things to come.

By all accounts, the Muschamp who arrived at South Carolina knew he had to do some things differently than he did at Florida, and that included installing an offense to fit his personnel. But until Bentley took the field, Gamecocks fans had to be wondering if anything had changed at all. Now the starting quarterback has another year in the system, another year working with the play-caller. If Muschamp is ever going to loosen the reins, this is it.

Because if he doesn’t, you’ll hear the grumbling from one side of the Palmetto State to the other. It’s one thing to struggle on offense, even mightily, with McIlwain unable to stretch the defense, Rico Dowdle out recovering from hernia surgery, and Deebo Samuel battling a recurrent hamstring injury. It would be quite another to struggle with Bentley backed by a deep running back corps, and surrounded by perhaps the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC.

So this has to be it. For Muschamp, the opportunity is now. Some key pieces of this South Carolina attack, like Samuel, tight end Hayden Hurst and right tackle Zack Bailey, are juniors who could end up in the NFL next season. This has to be the year Muschamp fundamentally alters how people perceive him as a coach, by building an offense to match the kind of defenses he’s known for.

If he doesn’t? Let’s just say South Carolina fans may think back to their last victory in the Swamp, that 23-20 overtime slugfest in 2014, and suddenly know what it must have felt like to be on the other side.

The post Loaded offense gives Will Muschamp chance to change reputation as head coach appeared first on SEC Country.

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