Photo by University of South Carolina Athletics (@GamecockFB)
By Tucker Harlin
No. 21 Tennessee (3-1) will host South Carolina (2-2) in Neyland Stadium Saturday. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m ET and will air on SEC Network.
The Vols hold a 28-11 advantage over the Gamecocks all time, and nine of the Gamecocks 11 wins over the Vols are in the last 20 years. Speaking of nine, the Gamecocks scored touchdowns on nine of their 12 possessions in their 63-38 win over the Vols in Columbia last year.
While those numbers from a season ago were daunting for the Vols, Neyland Stadium has been a daunting place for the Gamecocks to visit. South Carolina has won just three times in Knoxville, and all of those wins have come against Tennessee teams that have won five games or less in that season.
The Gamecocks’ start to 2023 has been a roller coaster. Their season began with a 31-17 loss in Charlotte to a North Carolina team with ACC title aspirations. The Gamecocks got in the win column with a 47-21 victory over Furman in Williams-Brice Stadium the second week of the season.
In the third week, the Gamecocks lost again at No. 1 Georgia, a game in which they surrendered 21 unanswered points in the second half. Last week, the Gamecocks held off Mississippi State 37-30 at home.
The primary catalyst for the Gamecocks’ offense has been quarterback Spencer Rattler.
Rattler was the top-rated quarterback in his freshman class coming into Oklahoma. After an outstanding season in 2020, he struggled to the point where he was benched for Caleb Williams in 2021 and eventually transferred to South Carolina.
Rattler’s season in 2022 was one full of ups and downs, and one of his biggest issues in 2022 was ball security. So far in 2023, Rattler has greatly improved in that department as he has no fumbles and only two interceptions through the first four weeks.
Rattler has been without his top target, Juice Wells, for much of the early part of 2023. Wells finished 2022 with a team high 928 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns. Should Wells be healthy for Saturday’s contest, expect Rattler to look for him regularly.
In Wells’ absence, Xavier Legette has stepped up for the Gamecocks. Legette has had over 100 receiving yards in three of the first four contests, and he has already tallied 556 yards and three receiving touchdowns, both of which lead the team.
While the Gamecocks’ passing attack has shown potency in the beginning of the season, the run game has been the opposite of potent. The Gamecocks have only run for over 100 yards in two of their first four games. Last week, the Gamecocks tallied a season high of 144 yards on the ground against Mississippi State.
Low production in the run game for the Gamecock is due to a mixture of new ball carriers and new personnel up front.
Mario Anderson and Dakereon Joyner are the Gamecocks’ top rushers this season. Anderson leads the team in rush yards with 129, and 88 of those came against Mississippi State. Joyner is a quarterback that has been converted into a utility piece, and he has rushed for 99 yards and four touchdowns this season.
On the offensive line, the Gamecocks have three returnees and two newcomers. Center Vershon Lee, right guard Jakai Moore, and right tackle Tyshawn Wannamaker are the returnees. All three saw the field in 2022, however all three are playing in different places on the line than they did in 2022. The left side is held up by transfer Nick Gargiulo and freshman Tree Babalade.
Similar to their offensive rush attack, the Gamecocks are patchy throughout their defense.
Defensive tackle Tonka Hemingway is the Gamecocks’ top returnee from 2022 in the front seven. Hemingway led the Gamecocks in sacks last year with four. Right now, Hemingway’s backup TJ Sanders leads the Gamecocks with three sacks, and starting defensive tackle Alex Huntley and starting defensive end Jordan Strachan have two apiece. The other end of the defensive line is manned by Tyreek Johnson, a veteran that is just now getting to start.
The Gamecocks did not return any starters at linebacker from 2022, so Debo Williams, Stone Blanton, and Keenan Nelson have slid into those roles. Of the three, Williams is the most experienced from last season, and he currently leads the Gamecocks with 31 tackles at the Willie spot. Blanton saw game experience last year, but it is not even close to the amount of snaps he is playing at Mike in 2023. Nelson is just a freshman, but the Gamecocks are relying on him to start at the Nickel spot.
The secondary is where the strength of this Gamecock defense lies. O’Donnell Fortune and Marcellas Dial will get the start at corner. Fortune was more of a depth piece in 2022, but he was able to make an impact as he ran back a 100-yard pick six against Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. Dial led the Gamecock in pass deflections with 12 in 2022, and he is a third of the way there in 2023.
Nick Emmanwori gets the nod at strong safety after leading the Gamecocks with 85 tackles in 2022. DQ Smith is listed as the Gamecocks’ free safety, but both Smith and Jalon Kilgore have made sizable contributions for the defense so consistent rotation can be expected.
If there is one area where a Beamer-coached team will pride itself most, it is special teams. Kicker Mitch Jeter finished 2022 perfect on field goal attempts, however he did miss one from over 50 yards away this season. Punter Kai Kroeger not only averaged a scorching 46.1 yards per punt last season, but he threw two touchdown passes. Vols fans may recall the deep touchdown pass Kroeger threw in Neyland Stadium in the third quarter of the 2021 game.
Xavier Legette is returning kicks again this year. His one kick return touchdown of 2022 came on the first play of the Texas A&M game last season, a play that not only set the tone of that game but the rest of the Gamecocks’ season. Receivers Ahmarrean Brown and Eddie Lewis will alternate on punt returns.