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Gamecocks must quell special teams woes, stabilize QB rotation

Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

Last week, the South Carolina (2-4) coaching staff — given a bye week — took to the road in recruiting future Gamecocks. The break could not have come at a better time. South Carolina is currently riding a three-game losing streak, one that has featured two starting quarterbacks, three wide receiver injuries, and numerous missed opportunities late in games for the Gamecocks.

This Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, South Carolina will host Massachusetts (1-6), a program whose record is not indicative of its quality. In order to walk away with a victory this week, the Gamecocks will need to stabilize two turbulent areas this year: the turnover battle and the quarterback position.

After Tuesday’s practice, head coach Will Muschamp met with the media to discuss several issues, including whether any validity exists in the notion that freshman Jake Bentley could play for the Gamecocks against UMass.

“We are making the decision that we think is best for our football team,” Muschamp said. “Right now, leaving camp, Perry [Orth] and Brandon [McIlwain] were ahead of Jake after training camp was over. As you continue to work through the season, we are not having the production we need to have offensively.”

While delicately explaining the quarterback quandary in Columbia, Muschamp explained that he has a good plan heading into Saturday regarding who will play but that he would not disclose that information until gameday. The SC head coach mentioned that all three passers were repping with the first team last week, though he also said he will not “make a change for the sake of making a change,” which does not sound positive for Bentley’s chances this weekend.

Another key area that will need to be shored up this weekend is South Carolina’s turnover margin, particularly finding a player capable of cleanly and consistently fielding punts.

“We’ve obviously had our struggles, but going back to spring we are constantly putting those guys under duress,” Muschamp said. “We catch punts every single day in practice.”

Muschamp took time to highlight the work of the Gamecocks’ special teams coordinator/linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler and also credited Bryan McClendon as a hard worker in improving the South Carolina return game. Later, Muschamp broke down what exactly is being taught to his team during practice.

“Tracking the ball, understanding where the typical ball is, when the ball is going to turn over, whether it’s not going to turn over, whether it’s going to dead flight, catching the ball above our eyes as far as being able to see it in,” Muschamp said.

Over the last two weeks, the special teams competition has increased mightily. Making imprudent decisions in the return game has continued to plague South Carolina. Muschamp noted that he needs to find a returner with “guts” in addition to the wherewithal to create “desired vertical field position.”

“You got to see sometimes on gameday to sometimes find out what you got,” Muschamp said. “We’d never put a guy out there that hasn’t caught it extremely well in practice.”

After trying tight end Hayden Hurst in the return game, the Gamecocks are also sending back cornerback Chris Lammons, tight end Kiel Pollard and running back A.J. Turner in hopes that a competent return man emerges. Explosive wide receiver Deebo Samuel also has an outside shot to return punts, but those odds will increase if problems persist.

South Carolina faces Massachusetts at noon Eastern this Saturday.

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