These 5 South Carolina football players are poised for breakout roles in 2023 season

Sam Wolfe/Special To The State

South Carolina’s 2022 team is no more.

USC capped off its second season under head coach Shane Beamer with a Dec. 30 loss to then-No. 21 Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. Still, the Gamecocks finished inside the final Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2013 and concluded the campaign at 8-5.

Next comes replacing a solid chunk of last year’s production. So who might be in line for breakout years? Here are a few candidates:

WR Xavier Legette

If his bowl game was any indication, Xavier Legette might finally be putting the pieces together.

He’s always had the physical traits at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, but inconsistency has plagued Legette throughout his South Carolina career. That said, the Notre Dame loss showed just how dynamic he can be. Legette set career highs in receptions (seven) and yards (78), while his diving, toe-tap touchdown reception in the third quarter will be played on highlight tapes long after his playing days are over.

The Gamecocks lose four of their top five pass-catchers from 2022. That should leave ample opportunities behind WR1 Antwane “Juice” Wells Jr. for Legette and the rest of the receiver room.

Legette evolved into a dangerous kick returner in 2022 — see his 100-yard touchdown return on the opening kick against Texas A&M for proof. The hope is he can finally piece together a full season at receiver that matches his astounding athletic ability.

LB Debo Williams

South Carolina has to replace two of its more experienced pieces at linebacker in Sherrod Greene and Brad Johnson. Enter Debo Williams.

The one-time Delaware transfer has done a little bit of everything since getting to South Carolina ahead of the 2021 season. He’s been a stalwart on special teams — blocking two punts in the 2021 season opener against Eastern Illinois — while he played a key backup role behind Greene and Johnson this fall.

Williams has been lauded as one of the hardest hitters and biggest trash-talkers on the team. His play may well back that up in 2023 as he likely slides into a starting spot alongside Mo Kaba, who’s returning from a season-ending injury he suffered Week 2 at Arkansas.

The Gamecocks won’t need Williams to be an all-world player. However, if he can hold down the fort in the middle and bring some needed physicality to the linebacker room, he could draw some major headlines as the Gamecocks get into the meat of next year’s schedule.

RB Mario Anderson Jr.

Mario Anderson is a tougher player to handicap, but the pieces are there for him to be a key cog in South Carolina’s offense in 2023.

MarShawn Lloyd (Southern Cal), Jaheim Bell (Florida State) and Rashad Amos (Miami, Ohio) all headed for the transfer portal. Christian Beal-Smith has exhausted his eligibility, too. That leaves 225 carries up for grabs next fall.

Juju McDowell figures to be a big part of what South Carolina does at running back, but his smaller stature at 5-foot-9, 177 pounds makes him better suited as a change-of-pace back than a bell cow.

Anderson lit up defenses at Newberry College last year for 1,560 yards and 19 touchdowns en route to earning a finalist nod for the Harlon Hill Trophy — the equivalent of the Division II Heisman. He’s got a similar body type to Lloyd at 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds and figures to be able to take more of a beating than McDowell.

It’s conceivable the Gamecocks take a by-committee approach at tailback, but Anderson has a chance to be a major factor alongside Spencer Rattler in the 2023 backfield.

CBs O’Donnell Fortune and Marcellas Dial

Let’s combine these two players for simplicity’s sake.

Cam Smith and Darius Rush are off to the NFL. That leaves South Carolina needing to find two starting corners.

Dial spent most of the season opposite Rush when Smith lined up at nickel. He led the team in pass breakups and showed flashes that he could be able to handle the No. 1 cornerback spot in 2023. The one-time junior college import took his lumps during his first season in Columbia in 2021. After a productive second season, he feels ready to shoulder a heavier load.

Fortune, too, is an intriguing option. He’s got length and speed to be able to run with Southeastern Conference receivers. He also showed flashes in the bowl game, picking off Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner and racing for a crucial pick-six to keep South Carolina alive in that contest.

The Sumter product has been susceptible in pass coverage at times and has needed time to develop. With a full offseason of work, though, it’s a good bet that Fortune and Dial end up being South Carolina’s top two cornerbacks in 2023.