Gamecocks Open Spring Football Practice Tuesday
After consecutive campaigns in which the Gamecocks exceeded preseason expectations, excitement is at a fever pitch to see what’s in store for 2023 as South Carolina Football opens its annual spring camp.
The Gamecocks, beginning the third season of the Shane Beamer Era, are coming off an 8-5 season, including a 4-4 mark in the SEC, a one-game improvement both overall and in the SEC, from the 7-6, 3-5 ledger that was posted in Coach Beamer’s first year in 2021. The 2022 season was highlighted by three wins over top-15 opponents, as the Gamecocks knocked off No. 13 Kentucky, No. 5 Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson, the final two in back-to-back weeks that wrapped up the regular season. The 2022 season also saw Carolina top Texas A&M for the first time in school history, and continue its mastery over Vanderbilt, defeating the Commodores for the 14th-consecutive time.
By winning eight games in a season for just the 15th time in 129 seasons of intercollegiate football and for the first time since winning eight in 2017, the Gamecock finished the 2022 season ranked 23rd in the country in both the final Associated Press and USA Today Coaches’ polls. It marked the first time since 2013 that the Gamecocks finished the season ranked in the top-25 and just the 10th time Carolina has finished the season ranked in the final AP poll.
With 15 wins at the helm of Gamecock Football, Coach Beamer has matched the school record for wins in his first two seasons in Columbia. After winning just six games combined in the two seasons prior to Coach Beamer’s arrival, coupled with arrival of the country’s 16th-ranked recruiting class, it’s no wonder expectations around the program have ratcheted up immensely in the 15 months since Coach Beamer was hired.
But there is still plenty of work to be done between now and September to keep that trajectory heading in the right direction. After another off-season of high-intensity workouts led by strength & conditioning coach Luke Day and his staff, the next step takes place on the field with 15 spring practices.
Most who follow Gamecock Football are paying attention this spring to see what the offense will look like in 2023 under the guidance of first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains. Loggains, who has spent the past two seasons as the tight ends coach at Arkansas, brings a wealth of experience from the NFL, where he logged stints with six different organizations over 16 years, including seven seasons as an offensive coordinator. Coach Beamer identified Loggains early in the process following the departure of Marcus Satterfield, and was able to lure him away from his alma mater, turning over the keys of an offense that showed considerable improvement in 2022 to him. The only other off-season coaching change also came on the offensive side of the ball, where Lonnie Teasley, who served as an interim offensive line coach in 2022, takes over that role in a full-time capacity, replacing Greg Adkins, who remains on staff in an analyst role.
As is the case with most teams since the advent of the transfer portal and NIL, the Carolina roster for 2023 has been revamped, and in the case of some position groups, completely overhauled.
The Gamecocks return 37 lettermen from last year’s squad, 13 on offense, 20 on the defensive side of the ball, and four specialists. Among that group are 10 returning starters, four on both offense and defense, and two specialists. Coach Beamer and his staff backfilled the losses of 31 lettermen including 14 starters, with eight scholarship transfers who enrolled in January and a 24-man recruiting class, many of whom are already on campus.
While the number of returnees isn’t necessarily large, several players return at key positions, headlined by quarterback Spencer Rattler. Rattler threw for over 3,000 yards in his first season in Columbia and got better as the season progressed, turning in his best performances in the regular-season upset wins over Tennessee and Clemson, throwing for 798 yards and eight touchdowns in those two contests. While not technically considered a returning starter, Rattler has his top receiving target in Antwane Wells Jr. back for another season. “Juice” was a first-team All-SEC performer in his first year with the Garnet & Black after catching 68 passes for 928 yards.
The top returners for defensive coordinator Clayton White are defensive tackle Tonka Hemingway, who had 8.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks a year ago, and Freshman All-American safety Nick Emmanwori. The defense will be buoyed by the return of linebacker Mohamed Kaba and EDGE rusher Jordan Strachan, both of whom suffered season-ending knee injuries early in the 2022 campaign.
The Gamecock special teams were simply the best in the country in 2022 and figure to be a strength again in 2023 under the direction of Pete Lembo. All-American punter Kai Kroeger returns, as does placekicker Mitch Jeter, who has yet to miss a field goal in a game. Also returning are deep snapper Hunter Rogers, who was a 2022 all-league selection, and Xavier Legette, who set the school’s single-season kickoff return average record last season.
The road to reach Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game will be challenging, as the Gamecocks have to navigate what has been documented as the toughest schedule in the country. The first steps in making that journey become a reality begin in the spring.
The Gamecock offense made positive strides overall in 2022, scoring over 32 points per game, nearly 10 more than the previous year, but they are looking to become a more consistent offense week-to-week. Ball security will be a focal point, as the Gamecocks have been at the bottom of the league in turnovers surrendered over the past two years. Much of Dowell Loggains decision to come to South Carolina hinged on the return of quarterback Spencer Rattler. Rattler is the team’s lone returning captain and has next-level ability. He has plenty of targets to work with, led by All-SEC performer Antwane Wells Jr. Returnees Ahmarean Brown, Dakereon Joyner and Xavier Legette and transfer Eddie Lewis provide veteran options at wide receiver. The tight end room has been completely overhauled, with transfers Trey Knox and Joshua Simon expected to make immediate contributions. Like the tight end position, the running back room will have a new look as well. Juju McDowell is the top returner, but transfer Mario Anderson figures to compete for a starting role as he makes the jump from the Division II level. The offensive line lost a lot of leadership to graduation in long-time starters Eric Douglas, Jovaughn Gwyn and Dylan Wonnum, but several players have game experience, led by left tackle Jaylen Nichols and left guard Jakai Moore. Trai Jones, Vershon Lee and Tyshawn Wannamaker figure to get long looks as potential starters when spring ball begins. Graduate transfer interior lineman Nick Gargiulo captained the Yale team last year and could work his way into the lineup as well as he transitions to the SEC and major college football.
The Carolina defense looks to build off another year in which they were again among the SEC leaders in turnovers forced and boasted one of the league’s top pass defenses, but will focus this spring on stopping the run. Defensive coordinator Clayton White is looking forward to starting back over from a team standpoint. It’s the third time White and his staff are teaching the system, so they should be able to teach it a little faster and a little more thorough. The spring will help determine who will emerge as playmakers at the linebacker and EDGE positions. The strength of the defense may be in the interior of the line where Tonka Hemingway, Alex Huntley, Nick Barrett and T.J. Sanders, along with JUCO defensive tackle Elijah Davis headline a talented group. Jordan Strachan and Terrell Dawkins return at the EDGE position, but both are coming off season-ending knee injuries and hope to be at full strength this fall. The linebacking corps will get a big lift in the fall when Mohamed Kaba returns. The defensive backs have some experience, as three freshmen started the bowl game, led by Freshman All-American Nick Emmanwori and DQ Smith. Marcellas Dial figures to be the top cover corner.
The Gamecocks boasted the top-ranked special teams units in the country last season, and the corps group returns in 2023, which bodes well for Phil Steele’s 2022 Special Teams Coach of the Year Pete Lembo. Highlighting the returnees is All-American punter Kai Kroeger. Kroeger also was a finalist for the Mortell Award, which goes to the nation’s top holder, and is a perfect 6-for-6 in his career passing the ball. Speaking of being perfect, placekicker Mitch Jeter connected on all 11 of his field goal attempts last season, including two from beyond 50 yards. Xavier Legette set the school’s single-season record with a 29.4-yard average on 15 kick returns in 2022, including one that he took 100 yards to the house against Texas A&M. Punt return duties will be up for grabs, but transfer Eddie Lewis earned second-team All-AAC honors as a returner a Memphis last season, and should get a long look at handling those duties. Snapper Hunter Rogers earned All-SEC honors.