South Carolina football: Gamecocks' breakout candidates for 2018 –

Coming off a 9-4 season in Year 2 under coach Will Muschamp, there will be plenty of South Carolina football fans with sky-high expectations in 2018.

SEC Country is here to help guide you toward realistic goals for the upcoming season, which begins Sept. 1 against Coastal Carolina, followed by two more home games against Georgia (Sept. 8) and Marshall (Sept. 15).

Which South Carolina players are on the verge of having a breakout season in 2018? SEC Country takes a look at some of the candidates.

RELATED: The All-SEC candidates

OL Sadarius Hutcherson (redshirt sophomore)

When Hutcherson arrived with Will Muschamp’s first recruiting class at South Carolina, there was excitement about his future as a left tackle. While that hasn’t happened at the position, Hutcherson’s proven himself as a capable interior player, which isn’t too shabby, considering he played mostly tight end and defensive end in high school.

In 2017, Hutcherson appeared in 10 games, four of which were starts. He got the starting nod at left guard in the Outback Bowl versus Michigan.

CB Keisean Nixon (senior)

Nixon was the final 2017 signee to report for duty, so it took time for the junior college transfer to get into the mix in the Gamecocks secondary. Some of that was on Muschamp, who admitted he should have had Nixon at cornerback the entire time, not safety.

After appearing in 11 games, primarily as a special teams contributor, Nixon was one of the starting cornerbacks against Michigan. He entered the bowl game with 4 tackles and 2 interceptions and added 4 more stops in the 26-19 win.

WR Shi Smith (sophomore)

Over 12 games, seven of which he started, Smith caught 29 passes for 409 yards and 3 touchdowns. The biggest play of his freshman campaign was a 53-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the bowl game.

Smith worked primarily out of the slot this past season. With Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards also back, he’s expected to be in the slot again in 2018.

DB Steven Montac (senior)

During his two-year South Carolina career, Montac has been a versatile piece in the secondary, working at safety, nickel and cornerback. In 54 snaps against the Wolverines, Montac was the top-graded performer on the Gamecocks defense, according to Pro Football Focus.

This spring, Montac will have a shot to nail down one of the vacant safety spots, now that Chris Lammons and D.J. Smith have exhausted their eligibility.

DE Keir Thomas (junior)

As good as Dante Sawyer was during his senior season, it was Thomas who started a majority of the games at defensive end. Thomas totaled 38 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.

The 6-foot-2, 262-pound junior has never missed a game for South Carolina. He’s started in nearly half (12) of those 26 contests.

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