South Carolina’s first job is stopping No. 21 North Carolina QB Drake Maye
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s defensive team room has a large poster that shows a group of celebrating Gamecocks with the words, “Get off the field.”
South Carolina will need to get that done in the opener instead of being driven off the field by No. 21 North Carolina and its Heisman Trophy hopeful, quarterback Drake Maye.
“We’re just going to have to do our jobs,” Gamecocks middle linebacker Stone Blanton said. “Keep him contained and play good football.”
Easier said than done against Maye, who was the ACC player of the year as a freshman. Maye threw for 4,321 yards with 38 touchdowns and ran for 698 yards and seven scores. His passing yards, 342 completions and 517 attempts were all single-season records at South Carolina.
“It’s just playing sound defense,” nose tackle Alex Huntley said. “Trust that everybody on the team is doing their job and know we can do this and we will do it.”
That’s tough enough to do with a veteran team, yet South Carolina enters the opener with many questions and new faces from the defense that ended last season with wins over No. 5 Tennessee and No. 8 Tennessee before a close bowl loss to No. 21 Notre Dame.
Cornerback Cam Smith was a second-round pick in the NFL draft while defensive tackle Zaach Pickens was a third-round selection. Former five-star recruit defensive end Jordan Burch transferred to Oregon.
In all, only five defensive starters from the 45-38 loss to the Fighting Irish in the Gator Bowl return to open against the Tar Heels.
South Carolina had plenty of areas to fix even if everyone had returned. The team was 10th in the Southeastern Conference in total defense (404 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (28 points per game).
The Gamecocks were 11th in sacks in the SEC. The strongest area from last year was against the pass, where they led the league with 15 interceptions.
That back end has the most returning talent in safeties Nick Emmanwori and DQ Smith and cornerback Marcellus Dial.
The group played a big role in frustrating the Vols and quarterback Hendon Hooker in South Carolina’s stunning 63-38 victory. A week later, the defense tightened up in the second half to overcome Clemson’s double-digit lead and win 31-30.
Smith, the sophomore safety, respects Maye’s talent, but the team believes it’s capable of matching up well with anyone in the country.
“He does a lot of things well,” Smith said of Maye. “He’s a person who can stay in the pocket, make every throw. He’s a great quarterback. Obviously, we’ve got to be on our A game.”
Behind Maye, North Carolina averaged just less than 35 points a game. It only twice scored fewer than 20 points a game, in losses to Georgia Tech (21-17) and Clemson (39-10) in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer sees the complete package when he watches film of Maye. He says the key is limiting North Carolina’s run game. “We’ve got to tackle well in space and stop the run,” the coach said. “Certainly, when he does throw, we’ve got to get pressure on him.”
A boost to South Carolina’s cause would be help from its own offense. The Gamecocks and second-year quarterback Spencer Rattler got hot at the end, with Rattler throwing for 1,044 yards and 10 touchdowns over the final three games of 2022.
“They had a lot of momentum at the end of the season,” Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said of South Carolina’s attack.
Rattler’s not putting one second of thought into a quarterback competition. He said his focus is on doing what he must to help the team’s offense move, no matter who’s on the opposite sideline.
“It’ll be fun,” Rattler said. “But I’m trying to make plays for my team and lead us to victory.”