It’s a Christmas present that arrives on Labor Day weekend. The beginning of college football season is the culmination of months of roster-building by coaches … and breathless speculation by fans and media experts.
Are incoming freshmen as good as advertised? Will players transferring from other schools find the grass really is greener inside their new school’s stadium? Will returning players make a jump in production to match fans’ expectations? In short, will the new season deliver a shiny bicycle under the tree or an itchy sweater?
University of South Carolina supporters are curious whether the unexpected first-year coaching success under Shane Beamer in 2021 can be built upon in year two. Experts warn of a difficult schedule. CBS sportscasters believe another seven win season — the Gamecocks went 7-6 in 2021 — is a reasonable expectation. The coach has expectations of his own.
“The players in our program have a better idea of what to expect in year two,” Shane says. “The coaches understand the players better and the players understand the coaches better. I hope that translates into more consistency week in, week out.”
According to an old saying in college football, you don’t win with Xs and Os, you win with Jimmies and Joes. So, who are some players Gamecock fans should keep an eye on, vital spokes in that shiny bicycle? After consulting with the team, here are some suggestions:
The Gamecocks attracted several student-athletes who transferred from other schools during the offseason. Quarterback Spencer Rattler and tight end Austin Stogner have drawn the most attention, having arrived from a big-name program at the University of Oklahoma. Another player to watch is someone fans may have seen on TV before without realizing it.
“I believe I’m an exciting player to watch,” says defensive back Devonni Reed. “I’m a high-motor guy; I have a lot of energy. I like to fly around. If you’re a fan who likes to watch guys fly around to the ball, you’ll like to watch me.”
Devonni is a graduate transfer from Central Michigan of the Mid-American Conference. The Rust Belt schools that comprise the MAC toil in the football shadow of the Big Ten, but they have found a unique way to gain attention. The MAC spends much of November playing midweek games televised nationally by ESPN. Devonni competed in three Wednesday night contests in each of 2020 and 2021.
“It was kind of awkward at first — everybody’s in school on Wednesday, and we had practice and class the next day,” Devonni says. “It was fun though because we were the only ones playing on TV then, so it was a bigger audience. There weren’t many fans at the games, but I know people were watching at home.”
Devonni, who is 5 feet, 11 inches tall and 195 pounds, will play safety for the Gamecocks. He says he’s learning the defensive scheme for both his position and that of the cornerbacks. He’s also working on his ball skills, hoping to add to the three interceptions he grabbed at Central Michigan.
“You get better at that by studying the offenses, learning the defense, and doing what the coach asks you to do,” says Gamecocks defensive coordinator Clayton White. He wants Devonni to be ready to get his hands on the ball when opposing offenses challenge him. “He comes in as a professional transfer who’s played a ton of snaps. He has a high football IQ.”
Devonni chose South Carolina for multiple reasons, not the least of which was the coaching staff. He says he was looking for a group of men who can mentor players on and off the field.
“It felt like Coach Beamer is building something special here, and he is,” Devonni says. “The atmosphere is amazing, the fans are so bought-in. The community is behind the Gamecocks. They checked off every box I was looking for.”
Jordan Burch and Alex Huntley
Imagine you’re a high school offensive lineman. As you line up against Hammond School and stick your fingers into the turf, you look across. There’s Jordan Burch, the top-rated defensive lineman in the state and ranked as No. 2 in the country. In the corner of your eye, there’s Alex Huntley, the state shot put champion. Sound like fun?
Now entering their third year with the Gamecocks, Jordan and Alex hope to wreak the same kind of havoc they did in high school. After serving apprenticeships behind older players, both are expected to join the first unit in 2022.
Jordan is a 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive end, known as an “edge” player in current football lingo. He and Jordan Strachan will rush the quarterback from the outside, replacing departed first-teamers Kingsley Enagbare and Aaron Sterling.
“This will be his first time as far as starting,” Clayton says. “He was behind good players. He needs to take advantage of his opportunity and rely on his technique and not just on his athleticism.”
Athletically, it seems there’s little he can’t do. At Hammond, he lined up at fullback when the team needed a tough yard. Many were startled by Jordan’s speed when he returned an interception 61 yards for a touchdown in the Gamecocks’ 2021 season opener. He even tossed an ill-fated pass in a game at Tennessee last season.
“He can beat you in every way,” Alex says of his teammate. “He has the strength. He has the speed. He has the explosiveness.”
And now he has the chance. To improve his football IQ, Jordan says he’s been making an extra trip to the football facility almost every evening, putting in hours of film study. On the practice field, he’s honing his pass rush moves and trying to get an even quicker start off the line when the ball is snapped.
“Since I’ve been playing at USC, I haven’t really had the chance to show what I can do,” Jordan says. “I can show on the field now everything I’ve been working on.”
The same might be said for Alex. He only got into one game in 2020 — he ended up redshirting that season — and was a backup to interior defensive linemen such as Jabari Ellis in 2021. Clayton describes 6-foot-4, 305-pound Alex as a smart player who is good against the run as well as the pass and is working on increasing his strength.
“He’s another guy who loves the game,” Clayton says. “He’s a flash player. He makes big plays.”
Few defensive plays are bigger than a quarterback sack. Alex says Gamecock fans should keep an eye on his pass-rush ability. He looks to a lineman from the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams as a role model.
“I’m a big fan of Aaron Donald for how much he has done to the position. When you can get a pass rush from the defensive tackle position, it’s special,” Alex says. Previously the student body president at Hammond, he now wants to assert himself as a leader for the Gamecocks. “I’m a big believer that if you do what you have to do on and off the field and in the weight room, people will see you.”
And now fans will be able to see more of both him and Jordan. They’re excited about manning the line together this fall.
“We started playing together in 10th grade,” Alex says. Jordan says he has enough of a connection with Alex that they can communicate on the field simply by making eye contact.
“He learns very fast,” Jordan says of Alex. “He has some of the best pass-rush moves I’ve seen from an interior lineman. I’m excited to see him put it all together this year.”
Fans have similar hopes for the South Carolina offensive line. Maligned in 2021, the unit returns practically intact for 2022. Seniors Eric Douglas and Dylan Wonnum are among the Gamecocks with dozens of starts under their belt.
“Our guys have to be one of the most experienced offensive lines in the SEC,” offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield says. “There’s not much they haven’t seen.”
The one who may have seen the most is Jovaughn Gwyn. He leads Gamecocks offensive linemen with 34 starts and is penciled in at right guard in the 2022 starting lineup. Now in his fifth season, he’s a Gamecock to watch as a barometer of the line’s progress.
“It’s about us improving as an offensive line, not just one player,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff I have to prove. We just want to show the fans we can be great as an offensive line.”
Marcus provides a long list of positives 6-foot-3, 300-pound Jovaughn brings to the unit: “His durability, his physicality, his athleticism, his toughness, his ability to move defenders off the spot, and his mind for the game.”
Jovaughn says he’s been working on improving his pass blocking. He’s also studying the center position, where Eric plays. Jovaughn says getting in the mindset of a center, who has to make multiple decisions about blocking assignments before each snap, will help him now and when he hopes to join the National Football League.
Reading the defense is part of the pre-snap communication that takes place each Saturday in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans. The Gamecocks struggled at times with communication in 2021, and the results were seen in a lot of sacks and not enough rushing yards. Jovaughn describes the process.
“You’re watching safeties, you’re watching linebackers, you’re watching defensive linemen while you’re listening to the quarterback,” he says. “We’re letting each other know what the play is, and if the quarterback doesn’t see something, we have to call it. All of us have to be of one accord.”
Jovaughn says there’s “a lot on the table” for him this year, including his goal of making it to the NFL. He wants to bring leadership to the team as it heads into the second year of the Beamer Era.
“It’s a big year for me, going into my fifth year,” he says. “Last year they thought we weren’t going to do a lot, and we went to a bowl game. This year we have a lot to prove. Sometimes you have to take the criticism and learn from it — and that goes for the whole offense.”
A Charlotte native, Jovaughn earned a December trip home when the Gamecocks played in the 2021 Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Another holiday-season bowl game would be welcomed by Gamecock fans. Keeping an eye on Jovaughn, Alex, Devonni, and Jordan should indicate whether 2022 USC football is a gift that keeps on giving.