On the verge of the one-year anniversary of his hiring, South Carolina head football coach Will Muschamp sat down with The State to reflect on his first season and the future of the program.
The Gamecocks were 6-6 in the regular season and Sunday learned they would play in the Birmingham Bowl against South Florida (10-2) on Dec. 29.
“Six-and-six is not acceptable,” Muschamp told The State. “That’s not what we want. That’s not our goal, but considering the circumstances, I’m proud of these guys to continue to push forward (when we were) at 2-4 and continue to play.”
Muschamp also addressed his team’s offensive youth, the decision to pull quarterback Jake Bentley’s redshirt midway through the season and the improvement of his defense during the season.
Q: Did the regular season go about like you thought?
A: When you come into a new situation, it’s hard to really set your expectation and especially in our situation because of the unknowns. The unknowns offensively with the amount of inexperience and youth. I think it was very hard to predict some things. We improved in every defensive category there is. We took a step forward. You look offensively when you have 80 percent of your rushing yardage coming from freshmen, 90 percent of your receptions and receiving yards coming from freshmen and sophomores, 70 percent of your passing yardage coming from true freshmen. The one thing I said at the beginning of the year was this is a team that’s going to improve week to week to week, and we did that. Certainly did not end the way we wanted to, but we did improve, and at 2-4 with six games to go, I think that it showed the buy-in of our players to our coaching staff and where we are headed with things. I think it’s a tremendously bright future.
Q: Was the decision to pull Jake Bentley’s redshirt the key to the season in your mind?
A: I think there is a combination of things, and I certainly think that’s one of them. Getting Deebo (Samuel) and Bryan Edwards back healthy. Inserting Rico Dowdle as another runner helped us. I think our staff did a good job of identifying, especially on the offensive side of the ball, some things we could do well and narrowing down some things for our guys. Were we more predictable on some things in some situations, we were but we needed to get good at something because in our first six we weren’t good at much. We will continue to build on this moving forward. Certainly with the playmakers we have coming back at multiple positions on offense, I think we will continue to improve.
Q: Jake’s appearance and Deebo and Bryan’s return to health all kind of came at the same time, did you feel like you had a different team from the start of the bye week to the end of it?
A: A different confident team that fed off each other. A different confidence on offense that certainly helped our entire football team. Regardless of what you think, unless you are a totally dominant unit, which we weren’t on defense, it affects you. It certainly affected us at times in the first part of the season.
Q: How did your defense improve?
A: I though we consistently played well in the red zone and we got the ball off people. I knew going into the year, those two factors and third down were going to be critical for us to get off the field. We weren’t as good on third down as we wanted to be, but we were really good in the red zone until the last game, and we got the ball off people all year. We needed to be an opportunistic defense in order to be successful. We made improvements in every defensive category they keep so that says something about the improvement, it says something about where we’re headed. We have to continue to progress. We have to continue to add speed defensively. I thought Darius English had a fantastic year. We need more effective pass rushers that can affect the quarterback with four guys rushingbecause you can’t pressure all the time. There are a lot of wants and needs for us defensively, but I thought the buy in was really good.
Q: When you started talking to your players about a bowl game when they were 2-4, was that to instill some confidence or did you believe that was possible?
A: It was a belief that I had that if we got some things turned around and we started playing better, certainly we could achieve that. I thought we had a very difficult early schedule on the road with a young team. We didn’t respond as well as you would have liked in certain situations, but I saw us continuing to improve as a team. It may not have gotten the results we wanted, but we played at that time a very good Texas A&M team that was playing really good football, and that was a heck of a football game and we had every opportunity in the world to win the game. So I saw a team that was making improvements moving forward. The open week came at a good time for us from the standpoint of being able to catch our breath and evaluate what we needed to do moving forward and we made some good decisions moving forward.
What was the key to the Tennessee game?
Getting out of the gates early, developing some confidence, continuing to believe in what we are doing. I don’t think there is any question that the first drive of the game, taking it down the field and scoring was huge. Obviously the turnovers were huge in the game. But I think offensively to gain the confidence early against a good opponent was something we needed at the time.
Q: Was there something good that happened that you didn’t think would happen?
A: I think the maturity of the young players as a whole. I would be hard pressed to single one person out, but as a whole. To be able to come into a season with the unknowns we had offensively and to walk out of the season with Jake and Brandon (McIlwain) and Bryan (Edwards) and Rico and A.J. (Turner), Randrecous (Davis) and Chavis Dawkins. We started more true freshmen than anybody in the country. For me to be able to look back on the season and see the valuable experience that was gained. Six-and-six is not acceptable. That’s not what we want. That’s not our goal, but considering the circumstances, I’m proud of these guys to continue to push forward at 2-4 and continue to play.
How different will your second 365 days be from your first 365 days?
The process is all the same from the standpoint of the offseason program. We have to get stronger as a football team; we have to get faster as a football team; we have to get tougher as a football team, as an organization. Our culture in those three areas needs to continue to improve, vastly improve. You can address speed in recruiting. With the toughness of your organization, you can address in recruiting, but we need to have a tough offseason and we’re going to and then we have to get stronger in the weight room. We got pushed around on both sides of the ball. That was evident. Those are things that we can continue to improve on in our organization. We are going to have a hard offseason.