Shane Beamer isn’t in vacation mode this week, but he’s seemingly at ease in northeast Florida.
South Carolina’s second-year head coach is always upbeat, sometimes bordering on corny. He’s funny, energetic and compassionate, even fiery in spurts. That jibes with the mellow vibes in the Sunshine State around the holidays.
Never mind a handful of opt-outs and player absences. Beamer’s mood ahead of this week’s Gator Bowl matchup against No. 21 Notre Dame isn’t changing.
“Last year, we played this game without Cam (Smith) and whoever else was out there. I know we were down some DBs,” Beamer said after Monday’s practice. “But (younger players have) gotten experience and we’ll need them this week.”
No. 19 South Carolina has been hit hard by bowl opt-outs and transfers over the last month. Its top two rushers (MarShawn Lloyd and Jaheim Bell) and two starting cornerbacks — one of whom (Smith) is in the discussion for first round consideration in April’s NFL Draft — are gone. The tight end room saw three of its top four options depart for varying reasons.
That’s not to mention injuries to receiver Josh Vann, running back Lovasea Carroll and opt-outs by safety Devonni Reed and defensive tackle Zacch Pickens.
Add those departures together and you’ll find yourself staring at a new-look depth chart South Carolina released on Christmas Eve, one that included 16 underclassmen on the two-deep — with many of those younger players expected to play bigger roles in Friday’s game.
That doesn’t exactly scream “experience” heading into a matchup with one of college football’s most recognizable brands.
“The guys behind them have to step up,” defensive coordinator Clayton White said last week, referencing the secondary. “…Guys like DQ (Smith) and Nick (Emmanwori) may have to play multiple positions. Everybody has got to step up their play.”
South Carolina’s offense, with as many issues as it’s had this year, is a veteran group. Quarterback Spencer Rattler and Antwane “Juice” Wells Jr. both emphatically noted recently that they’d play in the bowl game. Bell and Lloyd are gone, but there are older, more seasoned bodies to fill their roles this week.
The defense, though, will lack much of the experience that made it so stout for the bulk of the 2022 season — in particular in the secondary.
Beamer and his staff in 2021 inherited a defensive backfield that lacked, from the outside looking in, any discernible playmakers. It hinged on Jaylan Foster evolving into an All-American last year, while Cam Smith blossomed into a worthy replacement for first-round cornerback Jaycee Horn. But now those pieces are gone.
Enter the freshmen.
South Carolina’s 2022 recruiting class finished No. 24 in the 247Sports Team Rankings during last year’s cycle. Of the 22 enrollees, six were classified as defensive backs, while DQ Smith was technically listed as an athlete following a prolific quarterbacking career at Spring Valley High.
That group has been counted on already this year, and more pieces will be needed this week. Smith and Emmanwori have been stalwarts in the secondary for the bulk of this season. Emmanwori’s emergence and eventual move into the starting lineup functionally forced four-year starter R.J. Roderick into the transfer portal during the regular season. DQ Smith, too, proved a key body at safety and in spelling Cam Smith at nickel.
Next comes involving the rest of a talented 2022 recruiting class, both out of necessity and due to its talent. Four-star prospects Keenan Nelson, Emory Floyd and Anthony Rose are all expected to play important snaps in this week’s contest. Stone Blanton, too, should see time as he’s worked on special teams plenty this fall and in a backup role at linebacker.
“Just because you’re redshirting doesn’t mean we put you to the side and we see you in spring practice,” Beamer said of his young defensive backs. “We spent a lot of time during the season trying to develop guys and get a lot of good-on-good work against our offense and defense, and those guys have utilized it and have gotten better and Torrian (Gray) has done a great job coaching all those guys up.”
Bowl trips at their core ought to be fun. They’re pseudo-celebrations of a job well done in the regular season — and in South Carolina’s case, a chance to cap off a resurgent campaign.
Beamer noted that players had the rest of Monday off. He and the coaching staff had a dinner planned at a local restaurant. The rest of his squad, as college kids do, will assuredly find something to get into in or around the team hotel at TPC Sawgrass.
The Gamecocks will need the youngest members of their travel party to grow up fast come Saturday. In the meantime, Beamer is keeping to that ever-consistent smile of his.
After all, that approach worked out just fine in last year’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Just ask North Carolina.
GATOR BOWL SOUTH CAROLINA VS. NOTRE DAME
- Who: No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) vs. No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4)
- Where: TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
- When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m.
- TV: ESPN
- Stream: via ESPN app/ESPN.com
- Line: Notre Dame by 2.5