Offensive line not an issue

For many years the offensive line has been the weak link at South Carolina. It is no coincidence that as the offensive line play has improved, so has the Gamecock offense and win total. Though fairly young, this group of offensive linemen has the potential to be the best since offensive line coach Shawn Elliott arrived in 2010.

A quick glance at the ninth-ranked South Carolina projected offensive line and you will see a lot of youth. One redshirt senior, one junior, two sophomores, and a redshirt freshman will likely be the starting line when the Gamecocks take the field next Thursday night against Vanderbilt.

Young, but experienced. And very talented.

"I think our line should play a little bit better than last year's line," Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said recently. "We'll be a little bit stronger and bigger up there and guys should know what to do better."

The offensive line has been the Achilles Heel at Carolina since the days of former coach Lou Holtz and continued in the early years of the Spurrier era. In 2010 Spurrier took the first step to correcting those woes when he hired Appalachian State offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, a native of Camden, SC and longtime Carolina fan. Elliott immediately turned a running game that had finished last in the conference for three straight seasons to eighth in his first season and has continued to improve since.

The lone senior on the line, T.J. Johnson, will start in his 41st game against the Commodores, a starter in every game since his freshman year. If he remains healthy, Johnson will become the all-time leader in starts at Carolina in the eighth game of the year, breaking Cliff Matthew's record of 48 starts. Johnson has been solid his entire career at Carolina, earning multiple All-SEC honors and is on the Rimington Award Watch list, given to the best center in the nation, for the second straight year. He is also on the Outland Trophy Watch list, given to the best interior offensive lineman. Johnson is on three second team All-SEC lists by Phil Steele, the coaches, and media team.

Starting to the right of Johnson will be junior Ronald Patrick. Patrick may be the least talented lineman on the unit, but that does not mean he is not capable of getting the job done. After moving back to his familiar guard position after backing up Johnson his freshman season, Patrick played in nine game as a back-up and earned more playing time as the season progressed.

"Ronald's done well this fall," Elliott said. "He's got to get a little bit better with his footwork, but that comes with reps. Right now he's as solid as I think he should be, but he's got to get a lot better to be a really good football player."

To the left of Johnson will be true sophomore A.J. Cann. All Cann did in his first season was start all 13 games at guard and was named to four first-team Freshman All-American lists, including FOX

"He's a guy that started every game a year ago and now he's coming into his second full year at left guard," Elliott said. "He's knowing what to do; he's very confident in what he's doing. He's a strong, mobile athlete and I expect a big year out of him."

Cann was also named to two SEC All-Freshman teams and was just one of four Gamecocks to start every game last season. With a year of experience under his belt, Cann is looking to add to those accolades in 2012.

"I feel like I'm doing a whole lot better than last year, but I have to continue to get better every day and come out here to practice and work hard," Cann said. "Being a freshman I was a little young last year playing in the SEC, but I feel like this year I'm a lot more comfortable."

The trio in the middle has caught the eye of Elliott.

"Right now those guards are pretty solid inside," Elliott said. "One of the situations if you look at our passing game, we give up some edge pressure sometimes. Those three guys in the middle have held their own and have done well so far in camp."

Starting beside Cann in that pivotal quarterback's blind side position at left tackle is redshirt freshman Brandon Shell. The 6'6, 331-pound behemoth was touted as one of the biggest offensive line commitments is school history after earning a spot on the PARADE All-American team in high school and played in the Shrine Bowl and Army All-American game. Shell struggled early in fall practice last season after undergoing shoulder surgery and entered camp a bit out of shape. He played four plays in the season opener against East Carolina, but the decision was made to redshirt him.

Shell entered the spring knowing that the left tackle spot was his to lose after the graduation of Kyle Nunn, and was awarded a share of Most Improved Offensive Lineman along with Will Sport. He has continued to improve in the fall and has cemented the left tackle position in front of Corey Robinson and has the potential to rack up some accolades of his own if his head is in the game.

"Brandon blocked really well in both the run and pass game; didn't have any huge flaws," Elliott said of last Wednesday's scrimmage. "He's a guy that can be as good as he wants to be and as long as he's focused he's hard to beat. He's mental capacity slips a little bit sometimes, but as long as he's ready to go he's good."

Whether it is considered a blessing or a curse, Shell gets to go up against one of the true freaks of college football every day. Though Jadeveon Clowney has been told to hold back on the quarterbacks, he does not take it easy against the linemen. Shell has been able to hang right with him and provide some quality battles.

"I think it's pretty good," Elliott said. "I think Clowney gets the best of him occasionally, but for the most part he's holding his own and doing well."

The one position that is still up for grabs is the right tackle spot. It's not a position of weakness, but a position with two very capable players going at it.

Mike Matulis was thrust into the starting line-up when Nunn suffered an injury last season and made his first career start against Auburn. The freshman did not play well and was yanked in favor of Cody Gibson. Matulis would work his way back into the starting rotation against Florida and held it down the rest of the season. Despite making just five starts Matulis joined Cann as a first-team Freshman All-American.

The merry-go-round continued after Matulis was forced to miss the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason and Gibson jumped into the starting position.

Until Wednesday night.

"I told him ‘I want to see you go out there and play as if you're playing against Vanderbilt,'" Elliott said. "The first couple of plays I was extremely proud and then on a third-and-five situation he gave up pressure to Devin Taylor and got pushed back into Connor Shaw and gave up a sack. I told him ‘you're second team now. You didn't play like I wanted you to play.' He understood that. Mike went in with the first-team group and he got second-team reps the rest of the night. He played decent but I expect a lot more out of him if he wants to win that starting job."

Gibson's mistake was not an ability mistake, but a lack of technique.

"I stuck my head in there when Devin was coming and you can't stop a bull-rush by putting your head in there," Gibson said. "I just have to move my feet better and use my hands better."

Certainly one play in a scrimmage isn't enough to get you benched? When you're in a battle like Gibson is in with Matulis one mistake, especially coming at the wrong time, is enough.

"It certainly does when it's the first series of a game and you want to set the tempo; we had just dropped a second-down pass right there and it turns into a third-and-five," Elliott said. "You want to set the tone the tone in the first series. I think the first series in any game and the first series of the second half sets the tempo. That's not the tempo I wanted to set (Wednesday) night."

Matulis replaced Gibson on the first team the following possession and remained there the rest of the game while Gibson ran with the second string.

"We battle pretty hard every day," Gibson said. "I had a bad scrimmage (Wednesday) and I think Mike had a better scrimmage than me so he's probably going to take over for right now."

As of now Matulis is the starter, but that could change before next Thursday.

"It gives me motivation every single day," Gibson said. "We can't slack off at all. If I have a bad play and Mike has a good play he has the upper hand. We have to come out and fight as hard as we can."

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