Prior to the 2010 season, If you were to ask 100 people that follow the South Carolina football program closely what they thought would be the biggest question mark on the Gamecock football team you would likely get the same answer from 99% of the people; offensive line. Four games into the season with #1 Alabama coming to town, those question marks loom even larger than they did before the season.
Following the Gamecocks' first loss of the season at Auburn, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier was unhappy with the play of the offensive line and called them out. Offensive Line coach Shawn Elliott - the third offensive line coach in as many years - agreed with the head coach.
"We didn't play very well, we didn't block very well, we didn't protect very well," Elliot said. "We had a part in those fumbles that were caused in the fourth quarter. You can't be happy with it. Nobody is happy with it. That wasn't a great effort by anyone."
To say the offensive line struggled against the Tigers is a vast understatement. The Gamecock running backs had no holes to run through, rushing for just 53 yards on 16 carries (3.3 yards per carry) and the quarterbacks were sacked three times and left running for their lives most of the game. That led to Spurrier calling out Elliott's guys last Tuesday after practice. While Elliott agrees with Spurrier's comments, he's quick to point that it's not just "his" guys.
"First of all, he's not calling my guys out," Elliott responded. "He's calling our guys out. These guys play for the Gamecocks. Last time I checked, we're all in this together. Everybody has to step up and play better. Everyone does. It doesn't matter if it's the offensive line (or somewhere else). It's not my guys or his guys. It's our guys. Sure, we've got to play better. It's my job to get them coached up better."
Offensive Tackle Hutch Eckerson says the line is going to use it as motivation to get better going forward.
"We just have to take it for what it is and we have to learn from our mistakes and use it as inspiration to get better," Eckerson said. "We have to just kind of lick our wounds and get better to play a really good team next week."
The offensive line - the shallowest part of the team - has been licking all kinds of wounds all season. The Gamecocks have struggled to have the same line from week to week. Jarriel King, a starting tackle, was suspended for the season opener against Southern Miss. Eckerson was injured in the Georgia game and did not play against Furman or Auburn. Guard Garrett Chisolm missed the Furman game after the death of his father. Guards Rokevious Watkins and Terrence Campbell and tackle Kyle Nunn have also suffered injuries over the course of the season. Elliott says that is probably the most frustrating thing the offensive line has encountered.
"There's been ups and downs," Elliott said. "The most disappointing thing is the inconsistency in the guys we've had at practice. We've had injuries one place. We have the situation with Jarriel King. Just constantly fighting a battle of inconsistency up front. That's the disappointment. I think they've fought hard for the most part. But the last two outings I haven't been pleased with them.
"When you have a guy who's been out three or four practices and hasn't had consistent practice attempts, he's probably not going to practice or play well," Elliott continued. "We've got to get a group out there that's not sitting in the training room all day and missing two or three practices then comes out there and plays on Saturday. It's just something you can't do. So we've got to get better - we have to get them healthy and they have to play better."
After the bye week, the offensive line will be as healthy as it has been all season against Bama. After missing the last two weeks to an ankle injury, Eckerson says he's finally healthy and will be ready to go against Alabama.
"I've been practicing all this week and my ankle feels good," Eckerson said. "I'm confident that I'll be playing next week."
Eckerson - who was reportedly injured while chest-bumping Elliott during the Georgia game - won't admit exactly how he was injured.
"I hurt it in the Georgia game," Eckerson said with a laugh. "It was a long story, but I hurt it in the Georgia game. I'm just gonna say I hurt it in the Georgia game."
Though not where they want to be, the Gamecock offensive line has shown improvement over last season. Though the Gamecocks are on pace to give up 36 sacks this year (one less than last season) there has been a marked improvement in the running game. The Gamecocks are averaging 168 rushing yards per game this season, thanks in large part to the addition of running back Marcus Lattimore. Elliott believes there's much room for improvement, but it's up to the line.
"You have to ask those guys," Elliott said about improvement. "We can work them as hard as we can. I think they can be a good group. I've said it all along and I'll continue to say it the rest of my life; one game doesn't make or break a season. One great win doesn't make a season, one loss doesn't make a season. It dampens our spirits, but as soon as that game was over and we watched that film we put that thing in the back of our mind. We didn't forget about it cause we're not gonna forget about it. But we're gonna move on and and we're gonna move on to get better."
Spurrier voiced his frustration with the offensive line, saying "we're stuck with what we've got." Elliott says he knew what was awaiting him in Columbia when he decided to leave Appalachian State.
"I knew exactly who we had and I knew the situation we were in," Elliott said. "We've got the guys we have to go play with and win with and we're going to make the best of that situation. These are the guys that are Gamecocks that are here on the offensive line and that's who I want to coach and that's who we're going to play with."
Going up against the #1 team in the country is not the best opponent to make the most of improvements, but that's what it's going to take for the Gamecocks to upset the Tide.
"I like it because we have another game," Elliott said. "We have an opportunity to go out there and re-establish ourselves.We had success early on. By no means have we played great at any point, but there's been glimpses of hopes, as well as disappointment. I don't care who it is coming in. I just want to go out there and play. I want these guys to go out and have a chance to redeem themselves."
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