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Tight ends contributing just as Muschamp envisioned in spring

Beginning last spring, Will Muschamp talked extensively about getting the tight ends involved more in South Carolina’s passing attack since the wide receiver corps was so young and inexperienced.

He wasn’t kidding.

Through three games, two of the Gamecocks’ top three pass catchers are tight ends Hayden Hurst and K.C. Crosby with 12 and eight receptions, respectively. Only freshman receiver Bryan Edwards (team-high 15) has more.

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K.C. Crosby is tackled by a ECU defender last Saturday.
Chris Gillespie Gamecock Central

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Muschamp is pleased with how the contributions from the tight end position are unfolding the way he envisioned about seven months ago.

“I'm extremely pleased with their progress and they're going to keep getting better,” Muschamp said Tuesday during his weekly press conference at Williams-Brice Stadium. “(It's) exactly how I was hoping it would deal itself out. Hayden Hurst is a guy that's really playing a new position, so he's going to continue to progress. K.C. is in a new offense and being asked to do some different things. He's like a freshman. Hayden's like a freshman and Jacob (August) played last year. He's done a nice job.”

Crosby says throwing to the tight ends, an underutilized position throughout college football, should remain an integral part of the Gamecocks’ offensive strategy going forward.

“Coach (Kurt) Roper explained to us when he first got here and stressed that the tight ends would play a big role in the offense,” Crosby said Tuesday. “We just had to be ready and willing to learn and listen.”

USC has frequently employed two-tight end sets this season with Hurst, Crosby and August getting most of the action. Freshman Kiel Pollard played three snaps against East Carolina.

Hurst is more likely to stay attached to the offensive line because of his superior size and blocking acumen.

“Sometimes Hayden plays more on the line than I do, but that’s about it,” Crosby said when asked how the two tight end spots differ. “But we mostly do the same things. (Where we line up) just depends on the game plan for that week. I played a lot on the line this past week, but next week I might be more out wide. It just depends on the game plan. I hope (two tight sets) is how it goes the rest of the season, but whatever the game is, we’ll roll with it.”

After being granted a medical redshirt in 2014, Crosby served as a backup tight end and H-Back in 2015 along with playing extensively on special teams.

“I’m taking to learning my plays a lot more seriously,” Crosby said. “Physically, I’m working on becoming a better blocker. Everyone probably says I’m not the biggest guy, but I can run routes. So, I’m working on becoming a better blocker and putting my nose in there and being physical.”

Crosby’s current role within the Gamecock offense is what he thought it would be when he signed with USC in 2014. It just took until his third season and a new coaching staff to get there.

“This is what I envisioned to be doing at Carolina when I first got here,” Crosby said. “Since Coach Roper and the other offensive coaches got here, I’m playing what I got recruited to play.”

After three games, the Gamecocks offense is still striving to find its way. The point production has increased from 13 to 14 to 20, and the offensive coaching staff looks to have settled on Brandon McIlwain as the starting quarterback. McIlwain has quarterbacked the last six quarters of football for USC and the offense appears headed in the right direction.

But not without some growing pains.

“We’re getting close,” Crosby said. “We’re not where we want to be, but we’re making progress and taking the steps to be where we need to be. By the time we get to the fifth and sixth games, we should be full go. Right now, we just need to play a lot faster and get lined up quicker. If we do that, we can run anything we want. Tempo keeps the defenses from getting into what they want to do and we can run what we want to. It’s just a matter of improving week to week.”

NOTES

-- Muschamp and Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran coached together at Auburn in 2006-07.

-- As the Gamecocks prepare for their third straight SEC road game, Crosby said the Gamecocks are comfortable with McIlwain running the entire offensive package. “He knows everything and the coaches are coaching him up and Perry (Orth) is even coaching him from the sidelines,” Crosby said. “Brandon will make sure he takes his next game to the next level.”

-- Crosby said McIlwain has impressed teammates with his level of confidence, a requisite for any successful quarterback. “He wants to show us that he’s not just a running quarterback and can throw the ball too,” Crosby said. “When I first met him, (his level of confidence) surprised me. I was wondering, ‘This kid, is he going to come out here and do what he says he’s going to do. He has proved that to me.”

-- The Gamecock defense ranks first in the SEC and seventh nationally in red zone defense. Opponents have penetrated the red zone 16 times in the first three games and have scored five touchdowns (31.3 red zone TF percentage) and kicked four field goals. Last week, East Carolina committed three turnovers in the red zone last Saturday.

-- When McIlwain scored a TD just 17 seconds into last Saturday’s win over East Carolina, it was the fastest TD scored by the Gamecocks in six years. Marcus Lattimore scored from 17 yards out at the 14:47 mark (13 seconds into the game) after USC recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff against Troy on Nov. 20, 2010.