College Sports

A closer look at Jamel Cook, confident freshmen and USC’s answers for thin secondary

First look: Jaycee Horn, USC freshman defensive back

Defensive back Jaycee Horn signed with South Carolina out of Alpharetta High in Alpharetta, Ga., as part of the 2018 recruiting class.
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Defensive back Jaycee Horn signed with South Carolina out of Alpharetta High in Alpharetta, Ga., as part of the 2018 recruiting class.

South Carolina football has been here before.

After Wednesday’s news that safety Jaylin Dickerson was lost for the season with a bone issue, the Gamecocks are down to 10 healthy scholarship defensive backs.

Five are presumptive starters. One is Jamel Cook, a former top-100 recruit who USC coach Will Muschamp said was a work-in-progress after the spring. Four are true freshmen.

The spot of having to throw true freshmen into the fire and play a thin group isn’t an uncommon one. And to hear Jake Bentley tell it, those players are showing a little something that will help this season.

“They’re super confident,” Bentley said. “That’s one thing that kind of jumps out at you. They’re not backing down from anyone. I think I’ve heard it from all three of them multiple times. ‘Hey man, throw it at me.’ And for a DB to want to get thrown at, it shows a lot about them.”

That group is Cam Smith, John Dixon, Shilo Sanders and Jammie Robinson. Smith was the most decorated recruit, a four-star who attended a national all-star game. Dixon built a reputation on his man-to-man coverage skills, while Robinson looks to slot in at either safety or nickel.

“They’re all pretty impressive,” No. 1 Gamecocks receiver Bryan Edwards said. “I ain’t going to lie.”

A few will likely have to step up into roles in a secondary where the freshmen are almost as numerous as the healthy veterans.

The team is counting a good deal on the sophomore cornerback pair of Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn, plus safety/nickel R.J. Roderick, who all carved out their spots by the end of 2018. Safety J.T. Ibe was a grad transfer last season who got hurt, while Jamyest Williams is a former top recruit and starter whose role last year was unsettled before a season-ending injury.

That’s every scholarship defensive back who has stepped onto the field in a Gamecocks uniform — give or take tailback A.J. Turner moonlighting there.

Muschamp said the great sifting out will come in training camp, when the freshmen, none of whom were in for spring, get to work in pads with the coaches for the first time.

“Based on all the information I’m hearing, I’m very excited,” Muschamp said.

That leaves Cook as a wildcard of sorts. He’s tall (6-foot-4), fast and rangy, and in the spring game he hammered a receiver coming over the middle. He has the makings of a possible high-level safety, but after the spring game, Muschamp said Cook had been “inconsistent as far as assignment-wise and effort.”

The coach said Cook took some steps, but his performance was good at some points and bad at others. Bentley noted the structured approach of one teammate has had a positive effect on Cook’s game.

“He’s definitely shown a different mindset,” Bentley said. “I think J.T. Ibe has kind of been there with him to help him along with that.”

South Carolina’s dip in defensive backs comes with a little attrition. Jonathan Gipson lasted only one year in the program and left in the offseason. Tavyn Jackson was medically disqualified. Zay Brown moved to linebacker and then left. Junior college players moved through, and several grad transfers failed to make an impact.

USC regularly played six or even five defensive backs down the stretch in 2016 and 2017, and last year the team was so banged up it had to pull Turner into action during the bowl game.

So unless the starters can play every snap, it falls to Cook and then the freshmen to deliver something as USC finds itself in a familiar spot.

“I feel like they all have the potential to contribute,” Edwards said. “It’s just all about the mindset they come in with in fall camp. Fall camp will tell all things.”

South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp speaks Wednesday, July 17, 2019, at SEC Media Days, in Hoover, Alabama.