Matulis steps up

Entering the 2011 season, offensive lineman Mike Matulis was not sure if he would even get a chance to play. Twelve games later, Matulis not only played, but started five games and earned Freshman All-American honors. Matulis and the line seek improvement entering the Capital One Bowl.

Perhaps one of the biggest areas of improvement in the 2011 season for tenth-ranked South Carolina was the play of the offensive line. Long considered being considered the Achilles heel for the Gamecocks, the offensive line relied on experience entering the season. Led by senior tackles Kyle Nunn and Rokevious Watkins, senior guard Terrence Campbell, and junior center T.J. Johnson, the Gamecock offensive line figured to be much improved.

That was the case until Nunn suffered from a back injury and later a blood clot in his leg that would force him to miss the last eight games of the season. Without Nunn, offensive line coach Shawn Elliott faced his worst nightmare – inexperienced depth at the tackle position.

Elliott would first turn to freshman tackle Mike Matulis, who earned the start against Auburn. Matulis had turned heads throughout fall camp and had earned some praise from his coach, but Matulis had an abysmal performance before being pulled in favor of fellow freshman Cody Gibson in the 16-13 loss to the Tigers.

"I knew there was (going to be struggles)," Matulis said after a recent practice. "I had to work as the game went on. They pulled me out about halfway into the game so it was just something I had to work on."

Gibson would go on to start the following four games before Matulis won the job back during the Arkansas game. Matulis has not looked back since, earning the starting position in each of the last four games.

"I think he's just more confident,' Elliott said. "I think the more he plays the more he understands things. The better he prepares himself makes him a confident player whether it's right or left (tackle) so that's a good thing for us. He's done a good job and I think understanding that he potentially has to play both. His preparation and confidence is what's made him a different player at this point."

Matulis' battle back into the starting line-up won him some praise, earning a spot on Sporting News' first-team All-American list.

"I'm excited about it," Matulis said. "It was a very good honor to get and I just have to keep working harder."

Despite knowing that the simplest slip-up could cost him the job once again in favor of Gibson, Matulis says the battle hasn't affected their relationship.

"We're good friends," Matulis said. "When he was playing I was helping him out and telling him what he did wrong, and when he's out he's telling me what I do wrong and what I have to work and what I can do better."

Matulis was not the only offensive lineman to earn some post-season accolades. Redshirt freshman A.J. Cann was named to seven freshman All-American lists, including four first-team selections and two SEC first-team selections. Johnson won third-team All-SEC by Phil Steele, and Watkins earned five All-SEC selections, including three first-team honors.

"Those guys are working real hard and the rest of the guys are all young so they've been working all season," Elliott said. "We'll try and get as many reps as we can and try and get them a little bit better."

Despite the starting experience Carolina had on the line, it had plenty of inexperience in back-up positions. Of the 15 linemen, seven were redshirt or true freshmen, and two were a redshirt or true sophomore. With over half of the linemen being so young, improvement is the key for those guys.

"We're not scrimmaging these guys early on so it's hard to tell about significant improvement, but they're working hard and they know exactly what we're trying to accomplish now," Elliott said. "They're just getting a little bit better feel of the game and what we've got to go to the spring working towards. Maybe that helps them a little bit but there's really no great strides you can put your hand on so to speak."

Note

Terrence Campbell has not practiced since suffering an injury during the Clemson game.

"I don't think he'll see any practice time here in Columbia, maybe a little bit down there in Orlando, but this is his sixth year and I don't know if he needs a whole lot of practice," Elliott said. "I think he needs to do conditioning drills and be ready to play 60 minutes, but as far as doing the little things he understands what he has to do."


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