Gamecocks Find Stability Up Front

The South Carolina football team practiced for the sixth time Tuesday afternoon in preparations for the December 31st Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta against the Florida State Seminoles. The Gamecocks will close out their pre-Christmas practices tomorrow before heading down to Atlanta for their final four practices.

One of the biggest areas of improvement in the 2010 season has been the play of the offensive line under first-year coach Shawn Elliott. Elliott - who came to the Gamecocks from Appalachian State - has instilled stability in a position that has had a revolving door the last two seasons. Long-term offensive line coach John Hunt was relieved of his duties following the 2008 season and Eric Wolford left after the 2009 season to take the head coaching job at Youngstown State. Counting Cedric Williams - who coached the Outback Bowl two years ago - and Andy Boyd - who coached in last season's Bowl - Elliott is the fifth offensive line coach in three seasons.

"I had no idea," center TJ Johnson said after a recent practice. "I don't know what to think right now."

Johnson isn't the only one. It's unthinkable what the Gamecocks have been able to achieve in 2010 with so much inconsistency at one of the most important positions on the field. Yet here the Gamecocks sit, SEC East Champions and trying to be the second team in school history to win 10 games in one season.

"They've done OK," Elliott humbly said of his offensive line. "We've got some good backs, receivers and a quarterback that makes us probably look a lot better than we are."

While the arrival of running back Marcus Lattimore and improvement of quarterback Stephen Garcia have helped, the improvement of the offensive line has been quite noticeable.

The offensive line has given up 28 sacks through 13 games in 2010. While that is still too high of a number, it's still much improved over last season when the Gamecocks gave up 37 sacks and 39 sacks the year before. Carolina has also rushed for 156 yards per game, 35 more yards than 2009 and 62 more than in 2008.

"We've won nine games and we've had a pretty successful year," Elliott said. "We've ran the ball pretty decent at times. We've improved - I don't know whether it's me or them being a year older."

What makes that improvement even more significant is the lack of depth on the offensive line. The Gamecocks have used virtually only eight linemen the entire season. With starting left guard Garrett Chisolm doubtful for the bowl game with a knee injury, that limits the depth even more.

"It's a process of elimination," Elliott laughed. "We've only got one other guy we can play there. Terrance (Campbell) is working primarily as the first team rep guy, but Jarriel (King) has been working in there both at left tackle and left guard."

Elliott also brings a unique style to game day as well. His fiery, emotional, in your face style is amped up even more prior to games.

"I've always been like that - it's just the way things happen with me," Elliott said. "It's got to be a fun atmosphere and a fun ball game and I like juicing up a little bit in pregame to get after it. It's always been my style."

The offensive line did not play well last time out. The Gamecocks rushed for just 156 yards against Auburn in its 56-17 loss in the SEC Championship game and gave up three sacks. The Gamecocks will now face on of the fiercest rushing attacks in college football.

"We're just looking at this as an opportunity to bounce back," offensive lineman Rokevious Watkins said. "Nobody on the team feels like they played as well as they could - people are disappointed and upset. We're just looking at this as a bounce back game."

Despite the improvements shown in 2010, Watkins says it can always get better.

"We feel like we can always get better," Watkins said. "We've just been coming in and working hard to get ready for one of the best defensive rushing teams in the nation. We're going to have to play our hearts out."

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