Gamecocks Open Preseason Camp
The 2022 edition of South Carolina Football begins with an optimism that hasn’t been seen in Columbia in several years.
The Gamecocks, in the second year of the Shane Beamer Era, are coming off a 7-6 campaign, which included November wins over traditional SEC powers Florida and Auburn, along with a convincing victory over North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. The seven wins tied for the most by a first-year coach in South Carolina Football history. The experts had put the over/under win total at three-and-a-half prior to the start of the season after the Gamecocks could muster just six wins over the previous two seasons combined.
By winning twice as many games as predicted, the year culminated with Coach Beamer earning a share of the Steve Spurrier First-Year Coach of the Year Award, as selected by the Football Writers Association of America.
That success, along with Coach Beamer’s infectious personality and positive vibe, has instilled a quiet confidence around the Long Family Football Operations Center, and a “buy-in” in the community. It has also removed much of the doubt that comes when a first-time head coach is hired. The upward trajectory of the program has manifested in a solid recruiting class, along with a handful of high-level transfers that want to be part of the culture that Coach Beamer and his staff are building in Columbia.
Some of the national pundits have begun to take notice, as the Gamecocks entered the conversation as a pre-season top-25 team, according to some “way too early” prognostications.
But Coach Beamer is the first to acknowledge that, while seven wins was a step in the right direction following a two-win campaign in 2020, it’s not the end goal. There is much work to be done to get the Gamecocks back to the level that he experienced while working as an assistant under Steve Spurrier a little more than a decade ago.
A pair of changes were made to the coaching staff, as Coach Beamer hired Sterling Lucas and Jody Wright, two coaches with both college and NFL experience, to join his staff. Lucas, an Orangeburg, S.C. native who played his college ball at NC State, will coach the outside linebackers and defensive ends. Wright, who garnered several championship rings while serving a pair of stints on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, will mentor the tight ends.
After a strenuous off-season program, 15 spring practices and summer workouts in the South Carolina heat under the guidance of strength & conditioning coach Luke Day, the Gamecocks will return to the practice fields to begin fall camp on August 5. The Gamecocks return 49 letterwinners (21 on offense, 23 on defense and five specialists) and 13 of a possible 24 returning starters (seven on offense, five on defense and one specialist).
While depth remains an issue at some positions, the roster has undergone a complete makeover in just a year, and the talent level has been upgraded across the board.
The key returners on the offensive side of the ball include nearly everyone from the offensive line, which features multiple-year starters Eric Douglas (center), Jovaughn Gwyn (right guard) and Dylan Wonnum (right tackle). Gwyn (34 starts), Wonnum (30) and Douglas (24) have combined for 88 starts, while Jakai Moore (11), Jaylen Nichols (11) and Vershon Lee (10) also have reached double-figures in career starts, giving offensive line coach Greg Adkins experience and some position versatility.
Skill position standouts return in tight end Jaheim Bell, who exploded on the scene in the bowl win over North Carolina, and wide receiver Josh Vann, the squad’s top receiver from a year ago. Veteran receivers Ahmarean Brown, who is in his second season with the Gamecocks after transferring from Georgia Tech, and senior Xavier Legette both had excellent springs and could factor in the offense at the wide receiver position as well.
MarShawn Lloyd and SEC All-Freshman All-Purpose Back Juju McDowell are the top returnees in the backfield. Duke’s Mayo Bowl MVP Dakereon Joyner, who works at wide receiver, but is versatile enough to play quarterback if needed, can be a wild card that defensive coordinators will have to take into account. Luke Doty, who was the projected starting quarterback in the pre-season a year ago, is healthy following season-ending foot surgery, and is capable of leading the offense.
The defense has talent at all three levels. Along the front line, defensive tackle Zacch Pickens leads the way as a run-stopper in the middle. Jordan Strachan, who led the country in sacks in 2020, and former five-star recruit Jordan Burch give the Gamecocks a solid one-two punch off the edge.
The squad’s top returning tackler is linebacker Brad Johnson, while Sherrod Greene returns to bolster the linebacking corps after suffering season-ending injuries early in both the 2020 and 2021 campaigns.
Pre-season first-team All-American Cam Smith heads up the secondary. Smith, who is the latest in a long line of outstanding Carolina cornerbacks, could start at either the corner or the nickel position. Underrated Darius Rush works at a cornerback position opposite of Smith. “Super Senior” R.J. Roderick, who has made 33 career starts, provides veteran leadership at the safety position, but depth is a bit of a concern at that position heading into August.
Freshman All-SEC return specialist Juju McDowell and two-year starting punter Kai Kroeger lead the special teams units that made significant strides a year ago. Reliable Josh Vann is back to handle the punt return duties. The starting kickoff and placekicking competition will be interesting to watch, as special teams coordinator Pete Lembo looks to find a suitable replacement for the school’s all-time leading scorer in Parker White. The unheralded duties of deep snapper and holder are in capable hands. Matthew Bailey and Hunter Rogers both have game experience in short and long snapping, while Kai Kroeger is considered one of the best holders in the country.
Nine scholarship transfers are all expected to make an immediate impact. Quarterback Spencer Rattler headlines the group. Rattler was a pre-season Heisman candidate at Oklahoma a year ago. A pair of running backs in Christian Beal-Smith (Wake Forest) and Lovasea Carroll (Georgia) replace the one-two punch of Kevin Harris and ZaQuandre White. Antwane Wells Jr. (James Madison) and Corey Rucker (Arkansas State) provide additional play-making threats at wide receiver. The tight end position was fortified with the addition of Austin Stogner (Oklahoma) and Nate Adkins (East Tennessee State). On the defensive side of the ball, Terrell Dawkins (NC State) adds depth at the EDGE position, while Devonni Reed (Central Michigan) should help shore up the secondary following the departure of All-American safety Jaylan Foster.
The Gamecocks once again have a difficult schedule to navigate as they hope to contend for a spot in Atlanta and the 2022 SEC Championship game. The schedule features home conference games against defending national champion Georgia, Texas A&M, Missouri and Tennessee, while Carolina will travel to Arkansas, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida for SEC contests.
The non-conference slate includes a season-opening match with former Gamecock assistant coach Shawn Elliott and Georgia State, the first-ever gridiron meeting with Charlotte and a date with FCS South Carolina State, all at home, along with the annual regular-season finale with Clemson.
Year one under offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield in 2021 admittedly had its ups and downs as the Gamecocks introduced a new system while starting and winning with four different quarterbacks. Year two in 2022 figures to be smoother and more efficient, as the coaches have a better feel for the strengths and limitations of their personnel and the players have a better comfort level and an understanding of what is expected. The offense gained trust and got better as the 2021 season progressed, playing its best ball at the end. With some added pieces, notably at quarterback, tight end and wide receiver, and a returning experienced offensive line, the offense is ready to prove they can move the ball and put points on the board.
After starting and winning with four different quarterbacks in 2021, including a former graduate assistant in Zeb Noland and an FCS transfer in Jason Brown, quarterbacks coach Marcus Satterfield appears to be on a mission to never have someone say the quarterback room at South Carolina isn’t any good. He has restocked his room, most notably with the addition of Oklahoma transfer Spencer Rattler, a 2021 preseason Heisman Trophy candidate. Rattler figures to be the starter and is a candidate for post-season accolades, but the depth in the quarterback room has also been greatly improved. The room features a number of different types of quarterbacks with different types of skill sets. Luke Doty, who went into the 2021 season as the projected starter, is healthy after undergoing foot surgery that derailed his 2021 season. He is a leader and a dual-threat who is more than capable of extending plays with his legs. Redshirt freshman Colten Gauthier has a big arm and all the physical tools. A pair of true freshman signal-callers in Tanner Bailey and Braden Davis have the coaches excited about the future. Bailey is more of a true pocket passer with super arm talent, while Davis is athletic with impressive size, length and speed. Walk-on Jake Helfrich is in his second season with the squad while freshman newcomer Jalen Daniels joined the team in August.
Running backs coach Montario Hardesty lost a pair of NFL-caliber running backs in Kevin Harris and ZaQuandre White, but has some key returners and brought in some additional help to beef up the competition. MarShawn Lloyd and Juju McDowell are the top returners. Lloyd is gaining the full confidence in his body following a knee injury that sidelined him for the 2020 season, while the elusive McDowell was a Freshman All-SEC All-Purpose Back in 2021. A quartet of transfers, including veterans Christian Beal-Smith (Wake Forest), Dante Miller (Columbia) and D.J. Twitty (East Tennessee State) along with Lovasea Carroll (Georgia) will compete for snaps, as will returnee Rashad Amos. Hardesty will be looking for someone to separate themselves from the pack and carry the bulk of the workload. Walk-ons Bradley Dunn, Nathan Harris-Waynick and Chase McCracken round out the unit.
Other than quarterback, no position has undergone a more positive transformation than at wide receiver. Coach Justin Stepp’s room is in a lot better spot now than at the same time a year ago, featuring a number of players who have had success and experience in the college game. The biggest plus for Stepp is he has several candidates capable of contributing, so they will have to bring it every day to earn the right to step on the field. Five seniors return, including the squad’s top pass-catcher from a year ago in Josh Vann, along with Jalen Brooks, Dakereon Joyner, Ahmarean Brown and Xavier Legette. Brooks has a new lease on life after missing the last half of the 2021 season and all of spring ball. Joyner was the MVP of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, while Brown and Legette are both coming off outstanding springs. Gamecock fans are excited to see what junior transfers Corey Rucker (Arkansas State) and Antwane “Juice” Wells (James Madison) bring to the offense with their play-making skills. O’Mega Blake and scholarship freshmen Kylic Horton and Landon Samson are learning the offense in hopes of breaking into the rotation. Payton Mangrum leads a group of walk-ons, that includes Ben Rollins, Joseph Morris, Aaron Morton, Eriq Rice and DJ Black.
Maybe the deepest unit on the team is at tight end, where four of the eight players listed bring a wealth of playing experience. An older group, they can provide leadership, not only in the room, but throughout the offense. As a unit, they possess a wide range of skill sets and could contribute with multiple personnel groupings and a versatility that can be of value in both the run game and the pass game. The top returner is Jaheim Bell, who is a match-up nightmare and can line up just about anywhere. He is a special talent with the ball in his hands. Austin Stogner and Nate Adkins are both graduate transfers who can help immediately with their talent, veteran leadership and savviness. Traevon Kenion earned some quality time last season and looks to build on that experience. Super senior Chad Terrell made the transition to tight end in the spring and possesses good receiving skills. Dave Adams and Jesse Sanders are returning walk-ons, while Zavier Short is the lone true freshman at the position.
Veteran offensive line coach Greg Adkins has a unit that may not be the most talented in the SEC but will be as experienced as just about any in the league, which should prove to be an advantage. They are challenged to prove they can run the football and also protect the quarterback. The O-line is led by a trio of veterans in center Eric Douglas, right guard Jovaughn Gwyn and right tackle Dylan Wonnum, who returns following back surgery. The trio has combined for 88 starts. Jaylen Nichols and Vershon Lee are the returning starters at left tackle and left guard, respectively. Jakai Moore and Tyshawn Wannamaker have a number of starts under their belts and will challenge for starting roles as well. Hank Manos and Wyatt Campbell are seniors who have been in the program for a number of years. Trai Jones gained confidence after finding a niche as a fullback last season. Jordan Davis and JonDarius Morgan are redshirt freshman who, along with Colin Henrich figure to add depth. The true freshmen are Ryan Brubaker, Jackson Hall, Cason Henry, Grayson Mains, Chase Sweigart and Mac Walters.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Clayton White, the Carolina defense took a big step forward last year, improving in just about every category, most importantly reducing the number of points allowed per game from 36.0 in 2020 to 24.0 in 2021. Still, the group is hungry and has a lot to prove as it moves into year two under White’s tutelage. The Gamecocks want to put a more balanced defense on the field and show improvement in stopping the run. The defense’s goal is to be in a position to control a lot of football games and win the fourth quarter. The group, which has talent at all three levels, can be special if they play as a unit and understand the strengths and the weaknesses of each call.
Continuity is the key, as Jimmy Lindsey returns for his second season as the Gamecocks’ defensive line coach. When he took over last year, he became Carolina’s fourth defensive line coach in as many years. Lindsey has a hard-working group that may not possess a lot of flash, but simply comes to work every day, is unselfish, and pulls for each other with the older guys providing a positive culture for the younger players to develop. Senior Zacch Pickens is the leader up front and is an All-SEC candidate who could have left for the NFL following last season. Fellow senior M.J. Webb is a veteran who came on strong last year. Tonka Hemingway and Alex Huntley both continue to grow and are ready to take the next step. Nick Barrett and T.J. Sanders are younger players who have improved tremendously over the last year and could begin to make their mark in 2022. Four true freshmen join the fold this year, including Felix Hixon, D’Andre Martin, Demetrius Watson and Jamaal Whyce.
Sterling Lucas joins the coaching staff this year in charge of the defensive ends and outside linebackers. The unit took a hit with the departures of Kingsley “JJ” Enagbare and Aaron Sterling, but still has some depth. The group is led by a pair of standouts in Jordan Burch and Jordan Strachan. Burch, one of the most highly sought-after recruits two years ago, certainly looks the part and is ready for big things in his junior campaign. He is a complete player who can do it all. Strachan, who went from walk-on in 2017 to leading the nation in sacks at Georgia State in 2020, is ready to take the next step and figures to move into a starting role in his final collegiate season. North Carolina State transfer Terrell Dawkins adds some quality depth to the room and has some position flexibility, as he could also move to an interior position. Hot Rod Fitten and Tyreek Johnson have been in the program for a few years and are looking to find regular roles. Johnson, who has been slowed by injuries for much of his career, has shown that he can be a sneaky-good pass rusher. Gilber Edmond is still very young in his development at the position and the coaches are enamored with his upside potential. Bryan Thomas Jr. is the lone true freshman who has shown a good burst.
The linebacking corps is a nice solid, deep group with players who understand the positions. Overall, the group has a chance to take another step and become leaders of the defense. Having a healthy Sherrod Greene return is one of the keys for Carolina to have success in 2022. Greene, who has been sidelined with season-ending injuries early in the campaign in each of the last two years, brings versatility, speed, leadership and play-making ability. Brad Johnson elected to return for another season, his second at linebacker, where he can bring his size, speed, athleticism and knowledge of the game to the position. Mohamed Kaba, a member of the 2020 SEC Coaches’ All-Freshman team, is a true inside linebacker who has been productive and figures to be a regular in the rotation. Darryle Ware, Bam Martin-Scott and Debo Williams are returning players who are looking to find a more consistent role. True freshmen Stone Blanton and Donovan Westmoreland are newcomers learning the system. Colin Bryant, Andrew Colasurdo, Ronnie Porter and Akhnaton Shabazz are walk-ons who round out the unit.
The defensive secondary has a group of starters that can match up with just about anyone, but needs to continue to build quality depth under second-year coach Torrian Gray. A trio of cornerbacks could be a good as anyone in the country, led by pre-season first-team All-American Cam Smith. Smith has all the tools to be the next great one in a long line of standout Carolina cornerbacks. He just needs to show the consistency to go along with the splash plays. Smith could also figure at the nickel position. Darius Rush works on the opposite corner. An underrated player, Rush has the size and length to stand out. Former junior college transfer Marcellas Dial had a solid first season with the Gamecocks last year and looks to take the next step. David Spaulding, a transfer from Georgia Southern and a part-time starter at nickel last season, returns after missing the spring following shoulder surgery. R.J. Roderick, who has made 33 career starts, figures to hold down one of the starting safety positions. He is expected to be paired with Central Michigan graduate transfer Devonni Reed, who brings a veteran presence to the secondary and is a suitable candidate to fill the big shoes vacated by All-American Jaylan Foster. Depth at safety behind Roderick and Reed is a concern. Coach Gray needs at least one of the trio of Tyrese Ross, B.J. Gibson or Isaiah Norris to step up and become a viable option. O’Donnell Fortune and Joey Hunter are other scholarship defensive backs who are looking for a role. Fortune figures to work at cornerback while Hunter, who was sidelined with injuries for much of 2021, is a nickel. Both could figure on special teams as well. The returning walk-ons are King-Demenian Ford, Landon Grier, Noah Abrams, Joseph Byrnes and Cam Hardy. Coach Gray added eight freshmen newcomers to restock the unit, including scholarship players Kajuan Banks, Nick Emmanwori, Emory Floyd, Keenan Nelson Jr., Anthony Rose, DQ Smith and Peyton Williams, and walk-on Jace Blackshear. While inexperienced, they all have talent and could be asked to make an early contribution, either in the secondary or on special teams.
GAMECOCK SPECIAL TEAMS
A key ingredient of “Beamer Ball 2.0” is excellence in special teams. Under Coach Beamer and special teams coordinator Pete Lembo, the Gamecocks made significant strides in all facets of special teams in 2021 and look to build on that in 2022. Many of the key performers return, but finding a suitable replacement for Parker White, the school’s all-time points leader, will be the biggest task. The punting duties will again be handled by two-year starter Kai Kroeger, who also excels as a holder. Carolina is blessed to have two snappers in Matthew Bailey and Hunter Rogers, who have game experience. Juju McDowell and Josh Vann are the returning kickoff and punt returners, respectively, but could be challenged by a host of others.
The placekicking competition will be hotly contested in fall camp, with several candidates vying for the duties vacated by Parker White, the school’s all-time leading scorer, who just happened to go 16-for-17 in field goal attempts and was perfect in PAT conversions in 2021. A pair of juniors in Mitch Jeter and Alex Herrera have the upper hand heading into the fall. Jeter has a very strong leg and has gained game experience at a kickoff specialist over the past two years. Herrera was a pleasant surprise in the spring, exhibiting a stronger leg after working hard in the winter strength program. Another junior, Jack Luckhurst, joins the mix. Luckhurst, who as the son of former NFL kicker Mick Luckhurst, has tremendous bloodlines. He transferred from Arizona State, where he gained some game experience with the Sun Devils, but sat out the spring after undergoing hip surgery. If he is healthy entering the fall, he could be a wild card candidate for the starting role. Freshman Daniel Lester joins the competition in the fall.
The competition at punter figures to be more for the backup role than the starter. Third-year punter Kai Kroeger is the prohibitive favorite to lock down the number one duties again this season. Kroeger was named to the SEC All-Freshman squad in 2020, as could contend for All-SEC honors this season. Regarded as a good athlete, the even-keeled Kroeger can punt with the conventional style or use the “rugby” style kick. He is averaging 43.1-yards per punt through his first two seasons, which ranks third on the school’s all-time list for career punting average behind only Joseph Charlton (45.5) and Sean Kelly (43.3). Alex Herrera figures to serve as the backup punter. His versatility in all facets of the kicking game make him an excellent candidate to earn a spot on the travel roster. William Joyce has worked hard to change his body in hopes of that translating into more consistency as a punter.
Like the placekicking duties, the competition for the kickoff specialist is wide open and will be won in the fall. Mitch Jeter has probably the strongest leg and has the most game experience. He improved his average from 58.2 yards in 2020 to 63.0 yards per kickoff in 2021, with 29 of his 53 kicks a year ago ending in touchbacks. He also had no kicks out of bounds last year after sailing four outside the boundaries in 2020. Alex Herrera had spot duty as a kickoff specialist last year and will contend again for those duties. His improved leg strength makes him a threat, as he can kick it deep or spot the ball in the field of play. William Joyce and newcomer Daniel Lester, who has a strong leg and whose high school kickoff tapes were impressive, could also factor here as well.
The Gamecocks have a pair of deep snappers who have game experience. Redshirt junior Matthew Bailey has appeared in 23 games over the past three seasons. He is the favorite to win the short snapping duties for PATs and field goals. He continues to hone his technique, but his accuracy is his biggest asset. Bailey can also handle the long snapping duties on punts, but he gave way to Hunter Rogers for that role midway through the 2021 season. Rogers is an excellent athlete who runs well, which is a bonus in punt coverage, and gets great velocity on his snaps. Cole Rasmussen is a solid backup for both the short and long snapping chores. He is looking to gain more consistency on his snaps.
Of all the positions on the field, no player may be more secure in his starting role than that of holder Kai Kroeger. Kroeger is simply one of the best that long-time special teams coach Pete Lembo has worked with, and that list is extensive. Kroeger showed tremendous hands on high snaps that he was able to get the ball down several times last season, allowing Parker White to convert the kick. One of the best in the country at his craft, Kroeger is elite and takes great pride in his performance. Alex Herrera is a good holder in his own right, and should something unforeseen happen to Kroeger, Herrera figures to be the next man in. William Joyce is also working at the position.
The Gamecocks return a good one in Juju McDowell, who ranked fourth in the SEC in kickoff return yards last season while earning Freshman All-SEC honors as an All-Purpose Back. He averaged over 26 yards per kick return a year ago with a long of 63. But the job won’t just be handed to McDowell, as several other candidates figure to give him a run, and the competition will be fierce. Those who stood out in the spring and could factor include Xavier Legette, Lovasea Carroll, MarShawn Lloyd and Antwane Wells. Dakereon Joyner, Josh Vann and Jalen Brooks are other names to consider as well.
Similar to the kick return position, the team’s top punt returner is back, but will be challenged to retain those duties. Josh Vann is the incumbent and has gained the coaches’ trust with his sure hands and fearlessness. He also has a thickness, which allows him to be able to break a tackle after the catch. Ahmarean Brown figures to push Vann and is more than capable. He has an edge in experience over other candidates, fielding 11 punts during his two-year stint at Georgia Tech. Others could work their way into the conversation as well.