TCI recently spoke with Ben Portnoy to get some insight on South Carolina ahead of Clemson’s game against the Gamecocks. Portnoy covers South Carolina football for The State Newspaper.
Portnoy hit on a number of topics during the following question-and-answer session, including South Carolina’s quarterback situation, the Gamecocks’ opportunistic defense, an intriguing matchup in the trenches and more heading into Saturday’s game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity
With Clemson going for its seventh straight win in this rivalry series, has that been a talking point at all among South Carolina’s players and coaches this week?
Not as much as you’d think. If anything, I think there’s kind of an optimism around South Carolina. Also, I would think at Clemson, too, obviously having won a bunch of games here late. I think, for South Carolina, this was a team that people, myself included, probably thought this was going to be a three-, four- or maybe five-win team at best. Now you’re 6-5 with a chance to get to seven wins in one of the next two games (including a bowl). And if you win both, now you’re up to eight. So I don’t know that the rivalry and losing that many games in a row has necessarily been a huge talking point. If anything, I think folks feel pretty confident here around Columbia.
What do you think has been the biggest reason why Carolina has been able to surpass expectations under first-year coach Shane Beamer?
It’s a little cliche, but we talk about college football teams that compete hard, right? Teams might be outmatched or might, on paper, be not very good, but they compete hard and they make things difficult. I think that’s kind of what South Carolina has done. It’s not an overly talented team. They’ve got some guys. They’ve clearly got some guys that have NFL futures down the road, but it’s not a team brimming with five-stars or anything like that. It’s not recruiting at a national level that compares to, say, Clemson. But I think it’s a group that plays really hard, and those tend to be the most dangerous teams in college football. When you get a team that may not be talented but is inspired and plays really tough, that carries a lot of weight. I think frankly that’s what’s been the difference. This team, for better or worse, kind of believes in itself when I and certainly others didn’t necessarily in the preseason.
It’s been a revolving door at quarterback for South Carolina, which has played three of them this season. Jason Brown has now been the starter for the last few games. Why the latest switch?
Zeb Nolan got hurt during the Texas A&M game (on Oct. 23). Tore his meniscus and had a procedure done over the bye week. He’s been back healthy, but they’ve kind of ridden with Jason Brown since then. Zeb wasn’t quite healthy enough to play against Florida (on Nov. 6), so they rode with Jason. Things have kind of kept going from there, and that’s kind of been the decision. Jason, to his credit, has handled it well. He was the third-string quarterback coming out of the spring and felt like he might be able to play a little bit. A lot of folks were calling for him to get a chance and didn’t really get one until the A&M game late. He’s kind of held on to it since then.
Is Brown different stylistically than South Carolina’s other quarterbacks?
That’s the thing that’s so interesting about the quarterback situation. I think all three quarterbacks, whether that’s Zeb Nolan, Luke Doty (who’s out with a season-ending injury) or Jason Brown, all three are kind of different skill sets. Luke is a guy that can move around a lot and is a more true dual threat. Zeb Nolan is, I hate use the word “statue,” but he’s not as mobile. But a big arm and can kind of throw the ball all over the place. And I think Jason Brown is somewhere in between. He’s a guy that can slip around and keep you honest in the run game a little bit. I don’t think you’ll see a ton of quarterback-designed runs, but if the pocket breaks down or things like that, he can move around pretty good and can extend plays. We’ve seen that a couple of times now, but he’s got a big arm and he can sling it. So I think Jason is somewhere in between both Luke Doty and Zeb Nolan with their skill sets.
What’s South Carolina’s offensive identity?
They’re pretty run-first. I would say run-heavy. It’s a group that has struggled to run the ball, but, of late, it’s gotten better. They’ve gotten some better blocking, and it’s kind of added up to a more productive offense for sure.
Defensively, South Carolina has forced 22 turnovers and leads the SEC with 14 interceptions. How are they doing it?
The defense has taken a fascinating turn, I think Clayton White, the defensive coordinator, has done a really, really good job with this group. Bringing in guys that, one, are impact transfers has been part of it. But, two, I think the other piece of it is South Carolina’s defensive line causes a lot of problems. This is a group that I think is elite. I doh’t know if they’re top 3 in the SEC, but I would go as far as to say they’re top 5. They’re that kind of good on the defensive line and cause a lot of problems, and it helps the back end. And when you’ve also got guys on the back end like Cam Smith, who is questionable right now to play on Saturday. But he’s a true lockdown corner. And when you’ve got a guy like Jaylan Foster at safety who’s playing at a legitimate All-America level, it just kind of all meshes together.
What specifically makes you say that about the defensive line?
You’ve got so many different skill sets. I think you’ve got guys like (defensive end) JJ Enagbare, who’s a guy that could probably be a first-round pick this spring. Aaron Sterling, the opposite end, has been really good. Jordan Strachan at defensive end is a guy who was tied for the FBS lead in sacks last year at Georgia State and transferred in. You combined those guys with that they’ve got at defensive tackle. Jabari Ellis is a guy who’s played a ton of snaps. Played (junior college) ball and then came to South Carolina. And this has all been done without Rick Sandidge, who hasn’t played this year because he had an injury in the preseason.
I think they’ve just got a lot of guys hat they can rotate. This is a group that goes legitimately two or three guys deep at most positions, and that also doesn’t include Jordan Burch and Zacch Pickens, who are both former five-star recruits. They’re playing a lot of snaps as well. When you combine that group of guys, it’s a legitimate defensive front and one of the better ones that I think Clemson will have seen this year. Given how Clemson’s offensive line has struggled with injuries and everything like that, it’s a really interesting matchup and one I would circle.
What’s South Carolina’s biggest weakness? Or an area they’re particularly vulnerable?
The running game has been susceptible to just disappearing at times. I think Zaquandre White has really emerged the last few weeks and has been really, really good. He’s averaging over 7 yards a touch in the last four games, and that’s over 40-something carries. He’s been really, really good for this offense and has made a big difference, but given the way the offensive line has played most of the year, it’s not hard to imagine them sinking back to how they’ve played in recent weeks, especially given how good Clemson’s defensive line can be and how good that Clemson defense is as a whole.
Outside of that, South Carolina has been a little bit susceptible at linebacker. Sharrod Greene got hurt in the Georgia game and is out for the season. He’s a guy that really pieced this linebacking corps together. Without him, they’ve had to go to guys like Damani Staley, who’s been really good in spurts but is a guy I don’t think South Carolina expected to play as many snaps as he is. So South Carolina’s been susceptible to the run, and I think that kind of starts at linebacker.
Who do you think could be an X-factor for South Carolina on Saturday?
Jaheim Bell is a guy that I think is a legitimate NFL-caliber tight end at some point down the road. An all-SEC type of guy. He is a crazy athlete. He’s a guy that was committed to Florida and decommitted from Florida. Oklahoma wanted him, and South Carolina signed him. I mean, he’s legitimately a crazy athlete. He’s every bit of 6-foot-5 and runs like a gazelle. And is 240-something pounds. He’s a really, really tough matchup.
He’s a guy South Carolina didn’t get involved as much in the offense the last few weeks. I think that was having a new quarterback and figuring things out, but he’s a guy that they’ve had line up at fullback and take carries. He had a 65-yard touchdown run in the Eastern Illinois game that got called back because of a penalty. He’s got a couple of really big catches down the field. He can stretch the field vertically. He’s a really interesting piece. I think if there’s someone that would jump off the page that you wouldn’t be thinking of, that would be the guy.
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