With a strong core of players on both sides of the ball graduating or NFL-bound, it’d be easy to understand why Gamecock fans shouldn’t look too deeply into last season’s stats as a crystal ball. But there’s four stats that may play a role in determining success for this year’s crop of players.
1. Interceptions in Losses: 0
The Gamecock secondary and linebacking crew was strong in coverage last season, racking up 18 interceptions, good for second in the SEC. Yet in the two games USC lost last season, the Gamecock defense didn’t snag a single pass. Against Georgia’s Aaron Murray, this is somewhat understandable, but Justin Worley? The Gamecocks defensive backfield made other errors as well, such as a targeting penalty on Kadetrix Marcus, which resulted in his ejection, and Ahmad Christian giving up a 39-yard catch by freshman Marquez North, which set up the game-winning field goal. Consistency will be key for the Gamecocks this season on defense, and that means contributing turnovers and doing their part when the offense is struggling.
2. Dylan Thompson Completion Percentage: 58.4
Injuries aside, Connor Shaw had just about the best season one could expect from a QB in the SEC. 24 touchdowns to one interception and a 63.4 completion percentage tell the tale, and reveal what is most needed from Dylan Thompson this year in order to give the Gamecocks offense at least a chance to be as good as they were, if not better, than last season. It is a near-guarantee Mike Davis will rush for a lot of yards in most-to-every game, but he can’t run on every play, and while Thompson has proven he can bomb the ball with the best of them, what will be most important to see from him are the plays that will extend the drive and chew up the clock. Thompson has Youtube-quality highlights on his resume. What matters now is what happens between the lines.
3. Average Sacks per game: 1.92
For all the hoopla surrounding Jadeveon Clowney last season, the young man still put in a lot of work tearing pockets to shreds and generally making mayhem in opponents’ backfields. Ultimately though, Kelcey Quarles was the sackmaster general last season, with 9.5 sacks, as he, Clowney, and Chaz Sutton combined for 15.5 of the Gamecocks 25 sacks last season. Now we have to wait and see who will step up and try to recreate similar numbers. For all the effort of the three aforementioned men, the Gamecocks were only seventh in the SEC in total sacks. In truth, the defensive line was somewhat upstaged by the sudden surge of the linebacking core, and the good news is, that core is likely to get even better this season. If the defensive line can get in the backfield as often as they did last season, the front seven might be more productive than we expect.
4. Kicks/Punts Returned for Touchdowns
Come on. Really? Really really? This shows why there wasn’t much hope at the return spots last season. Ace Sanders certainly spoiled USC fans in previous years, but even he couldn't break the scoreless kick return streak (why didn't he return kicks?). The Gamecocks haven’t returned a kick for a touchdown since 2002 (Matthew Thomas shout-out, I guess!). Special teams is a major part of the best teams in football, both at the collegiate and pro levels, and just like on offense and defense, mediocrity does not cut it. So who steps up? Personally, I’m looking at Pharoh Cooper. The young man had the best return average on kickoffs and punts last season (though considering his average punt return was for less than five yards, it’s not saying much). I’m expecting a bigger year from Cooper on the whole this season, though, so if his role at wide receiver is expanded, there may be a hesitancy to use him on special teams. Last year’s dismal return game can not be repeated if the Gamecocks want to reach maximum success.