South Carolina Gamecocks Football: Rattler Returns, Juice Is Loose, Hope Builds in Columbia

South Carolina football's Spencer Rattler could be a high pick in next year's NFL Draft. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina football's Spencer Rattler could be a high pick in next year's NFL Draft. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports /
South Carolina Gamecocks Footballls
South Carolina Gamecocks’ Spencer Rattler, Antwane Wells Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports /

No football program in the country had its momentum take a sharper upward turn at the end of the regular season than the South Carolina Gamecocks. The Gamecocks beat, for the first time in school history, two top-10 teams in back-to-back weeks, one Williams-Brice beatdown of playoff-hopeful Tennessee and one streak-ending victory on the road against Clemson.

Shortly after the Clemson upset, much-maligned former Offensive Coordinator Marcus Satterfield and the Gamecocks parted ways and several other key assistants had their contracts renewed. Recruiting wins followed as Carolina added commitments (and in the case of 4-star tackle prospect Oluwatosin Babalade, a recommitment) from several blue chip prospects, allowing for the Gamecocks to rise up in the national recruiting rankings to the top-20 according to all major outlets.

For the 2023 version of the gridiron Gamecocks, no news impacts the team as much as the mid-January announcements from quarterback Spencer Rattler and his top target Antwane “Juice” Wells that they would each return for another year in Columbia. Rattler struggled early last season but drastically improved his play as the offensive play-calling was simplified later in the year. Wells’ production, as one could expect, was negatively affected by his quarterback’s early struggles, but as Rattler turned things around, Wells’ star shone brightly.

The duo connected for 20 completions, 308 yards, and two touchdowns in the wins over their two orange rivals, and each player added a rushing touchdown to bolster their impressive numbers.

Against Tennessee, Rattler broke several school records en route to one of college football’s best quarterback performances of the last decade; dismantling the Vols, Rattler went 30-37 with 438 yards and six touchdowns, one of only a handful of games in college football history in which a quarterback has ever had 400 yards, 6 touchdowns, 0 turnovers, and an 80% completion percentage.

Juice Wells backed his own impressive performance against Tennessee (11 catches for 177 yards) with a 9 catch, 133 yards, and 2 touchdowns performance in Clemson’s Memorial Stadium including the game’s final catch—Rattler and center Eric Douglas implored the offensive staff to “get the ball to Juice” on the final play, a call that sealed the rivalry game finale for the Gamecocks.

Because of Rattler and Wells building a strong connection on and off the field, they were sometimes viewed as a package deal this offseason: if Rattler elected to go pro, so would Wells, and if Wells elected to test NFL draft waters, so would Rattler. While this was not 100% accurate, Juice and Spencer certainly took the other’s decision to heart when making their own call.

Rattler’s draft grades ranged from second round all the way to undrafted, with most outlets projecting him to be a day-three (5th-7th round) pick. Prognostications on Wells were very similar, with the James Madison transfer garnering many 7th-round draft projections. In the end, perhaps one of the SEC’s most dynamic passing game duos decided to play another year of college football, much to the delight of the Gamecock faithful.

Rattler, in particular, causes football fans’ minds to wander when thinking of what “could be.” A former five-star recruit, Rattler has had plenty of ups and downs in his career, but everyone who has watched him closely recognizes that his talent far outweighs his production to this point. Did the end of the 2022 season unlock something in Rattler? Fair or unfair, Gamecock fans are anticipating more performances that look like the ones against Tennessee and Clemson. If Rattler can deliver that level of play, the Gamecocks will be a dangerous team.

For Wells, beating the odds is nothing new. He was an under-recruited player who signed with James Madison out of high school because his talents were not fully recognized by those who watched his film. When he saw an opportunity to transfer to a bigger program, he landed at South Carolina but was sometimes overshadowed in his first offseason by fellow transfer portal pass catchers Austin Stogner and Corey Rucker. Those who paid close attention, though, knew the Gamecocks found someone special in Juice Wells, and he proved it in game action, leading the team in all major receiving categories. If he can improve his play for the 2023 season, the Second Team All-SEC designation he earned in 2022 will be too small an honor.

During his first few weeks on the job, new Offensive Coordinator Dowell Loggains called the respective returns of Rattler and Wells “the most important” recruiting challenges of his college career. With those recruitments now over, expectations in Columbia are high. Public perception of the program is at its highest point since the 2017-2018 offseason (coming off nine wins in year two of Will Muschamp), and with Rattler and Wells coming back to lead the Gamecock offense, there is the potential for that perception to continue growing as the program climbs ever higher up the mountain that is the college football hierarchy.

Head Coach Shane Beamer’s squad followed up a 2-win campaign in Will Muchamp’s final season with a 7-win showing in 2021 and won 8 regular season games in 2022, including three top-15 victories. Recruiting is going better than it has in years, and the Gamecocks have the potential to have their highest-ranked class since the Steve Spurrier-era if a couple of final 2023 recruitments swing their way. The team’s two most important offensive weapons are back, and four of five offensive line positions return a player with significant experience. OC Dowell Loggains has already begun turning the early criticism over his hiring into a contagious energy noticeable throughout the Long Family Football Operations building that the Gamecocks call home. The Gamecock defense will return several key contributors from injury, helping strengthen Defensive Coordinator Clayton White’s unit. Special Teams Coordinator Pete Lembo has had the country’s best overall special teams unit in college football in his two years in garnet and black, and the Gamecocks consistently find ways to utilize the oft-forgetten third phase of the game to create a competitive advantage for themselves.

Amidst the recognizable southern smells of winter rain and smoked barbecue, something else vaguely familiar is in the air around Columbia, South Carolina: hope.