This season, at least for now, there is hope. A new coach in Steve Shankweiler, and more experience at almost all positions, gives rise to talk of improvement.
Shankweiler comes to USC with 21 years of collegiate coaching experience. He coached the offensive line at the University of Cincinnati last year, and according to all reports it was an offensive line that performed very well. He also spent a total of 10 seasons as the offensive line coach at East Carolina University during their heyday seasons. He spent another three years as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Georgia Tech (1992-94), again, during some of their most productive seasons.
Steve is a native of Atlanta, Georgia and has been called upon to recruit that area for the Gamecocks - an area that has been rich in big ugly talent for years.
What Coach Shankweiler brings to the table by all accounts is an ability to communicate with his players and place trust in them to execute to their fullest potential. He asks a lot, and in return is given a lot by those underneath his tutelage based upon his history. Already he has gained the confidence and trust of his players, to the point where they appear to be somewhat awestruck. They tell us they are learning new tactics by leaps and bounds. Time will tell.
If the Offensive Line is the anchor of the Offense, then the Center is the rope that binds. This season John Strickland (6-5, 312) comes into his senior year with much expected of him. In return, the Senior from Bainbridge, Georgia will be expected to produce. He has the heady ability to command the line as they break from the huddle. In the Gamecock offense, the center is required to turn from the huddle and recognize the defense facing him within two seconds before calling out the keys to his fellow offensive linemen. He is allowed to check-off until he touches the football - but often, a good Center who has developed a good level of communication with his fellow offensive linemen, will have the ability to change calls within split seconds of the actual snap. It requires an understanding of one another, and a trust by his cohorts to his right and left. With that understood a center must be well-liked and respected and this is one area in which Strickland seems to excel. His teammates like him. He gets the job done, at times with a nasty attitude. He has a mean streak that comes out in the heat of battle. What he has lacked in the past is solid work ethic and intensity - and a willingness to play with pain. Physically he has matured with each progressive season - he came in a baby-fat-faced kid and is now chiseled and sporting a goatee. His focus has been much improved over the winter and into the spring and he appears ready to fulfill his potential during this, his senior campaign. He has all the tools - now the only question is, will he use them?
Things can change during Spring Ball on the offensive line. For the moment, and we believe this will stick, Junior Jabari Levey (6-7, 340) will man the position to Strickland's far left at left tackle. We used to call this 'split tackle' but the new staff travels the simple road of lefts and rights. The left side of the line is usually the strongest because they protect the quarterback's blind side ... if the quarterback is right-handed, as Dondrial Pinkins, Blake Mitchell, Syvelle Newton and Mike Rathe are, then that is the blind side of the offense. Levey has played since his true freshman season and showed flashes of brilliance last year. He has NFL potential and we expect this will be a breakout season for the Moncks Corner Mammoth. His footwork is sound, but he needs work on picking up his reads and recognizing stunts to his face and front right. He had a bit of a problem at times handling blitzes from smaller quicker opponents last season. He needs to learn to use his size and incredible 80" wingspan to send blitzers wider. He also has to learn to close gaps in the pocket with his right guard. Too often last season we saw Levey battling shallow, while his center and guard went high and deep. That left inside gaps open and led to too many pressures. Giving Dondrial Pinkins, or whomever, more time to throw in the pocket will be key this season.
The man at left tackle is charged with handling more pressure and facing more blue chip pass rushers in the league than anyone else on the team. Next to quarterback and center, the left tackle position is the most demanding in both mental and physical terms, more so than any other on the offense.
At left guard, at least for the time being, will be second year Sophomore Steve Sene (6-6, 320). Sene is a physical specimen and somewhat of a cerebral player. His quickness to learn and adapt has allowed his early promotion to the starting line as much as his physical ability. He is a calm, reserved young man. He does not overreact, and therefore he rarely overcompensates. That's key at left guard because he will be forced to cover developing weaknesses to his left AND right as they occur in the blink of an eye from the snap. With the size and speed often seen in the SEC's defensive tackles and middle-linebackers, the offensive guards are required to adjust in a hurry to stunting defenses bent on presenting one package and executing another. Offensive guards must exercise the ability to block on the fly. Sene appears to be a custom fit for those requirements. His combination of size, quickness, good footwork and ability to think under stress has placed him in a position to be one to watch in 2004.
With the running attack Lou Holtz hopes to bring to battle this season, the right side of the line will need to be bruisers. Consider this. If a defense places its quickest and strongest on a quarterback's blind side, then it stands to reason that slower, but usually bulkier defenders are to the offense's right. We used to call this the 'tight side' of the offensive line. The offensive line gaps are more closed than the left for several reasons. A compacter offensive line makes it easier to open holes for rushers. It closes the gaps shown to defenders. It facilitates a cohesive line driving effort by the offensive trenchmen to help a running game. But the left side of defense, the right to the offense, is referred to as the 'strong side' by the defenders. There is a reason for this. Strong side defenders usually face more straight ahead poundings from right-handed QB'd offenses.
South Carolina will counter strong-sided defenses with Right Tackle Na'Shan Goddard (6-8, 300). Goddard, another senior, is in his third year with the program. He was signed as a defensive lineman but quickly heard a true calling on the offensive side of the ball. He has hit the 300 pounder mark for the first time just recently. He played most of last season between 280-290. Na'Shan has hit the weight room and the training table with zeal during the off season and it should pay dividends. He may have the best footwork on the team when he is on his game. He is exceptionally strong for his size - long armed players have a difficult time in the weight room because of the increased distance their muscles must travel when pushing iron. Therefore, the taller linemen typically frustrate easier - but not in Goddard's case. He is as close to a 'freak' as we have seen on the offensive line. The question lies in his approach to the game from a mental aspect. He has had a propensity to miss an assignment from time to time. What he will need to master before summer arrives, is the ability to drive block. In addition, he must learn to make a wider arch in pass protection and force rushers deeper outside of the pocket. Goddard goes deep and is shucked low - which is not acceptable from a young man with his potential. He gets too high in his block because of his size, and that allows some of the better strong side defensive ends to push him out of the way and spin low for the pressure or sack. Goddard will learn to use his 81" wingspan to protect for that extra second or two this season. Coach Shankweiler sees Goddard as one who may grow into a NFL draftee by this time next year.
To Goddard's left, at right guard, will be his good friend, Senior Jonathan Alston (6-5.5, 314). Alston is a daddy now and his responsibility level went up ten fold in the process. He wants to earn a shot in the NFL and his work ethic shows as much. He has been a mad man in the weight room during the off season and his intensity level in practices so far have been noteworthy. Alston and Goddard can be seen paling around together at all times. Their friendship and trust in one another may prove to be a formidable combination during the 2004 campaign. Both seniors, they will be called upon to open holes and dominate defensive lines on the right side of the battle for what should be a capable Gamecock running attack this season.
Depth is a concern for the Gamecocks heading into the summer. Right now they are short-handed. What that means is that they will depend on some of the newcomers to contribute immediately upon their arrival in August.
To begin with Woodly Telfort (6-8, 315), will have to see a lot of action at both tackle positions and possibly even guard depending upon what Sene does. He will be required to go both ways. He is capable and according to Woodly himself he 'learned a lot' last season during his SEC baptism. Let's hope so because Telfort was beaten on far too many occassions during the later half of the 2003 collapse. It's the one major knock on Telfort - he lacks quickness. It is something he will have to work on with purpose over the summer and right up until the first game. Telfort is every bit as important as every one of the starters listed above if not moreso in some ways. He must be ready to step in a contribute this season. Even better, he needs to push someone for a starting job.
Kris Mick (6-5, 295) is slated to work as the other tackle - but he is unable to participate in Spring Drills and will be behind the curve come summer. Furthermore, there is a hint of a suggestion circulating around at the time that Mick may be tried at Center when he returns, or perhaps guard. And all the speculation only leaves us believing that no one knows for sure where Mick might end up by summer practice. If he is moved to guard that would leave but one experienced tackle on the roster at the moment in Telfort - and like we wrote, he could easily end up at guard if the young Sene were to falter. Not good. And consider this. Mick is only a redshirt sophomore who saw very limited action last year in the first place. Definitely not good.
Speaking of centers, Chris White (6-4, 310) returns as a true sophomore. He played beyond his year last season - but for a true freshman not much was expected. This year will be a different story. White is running as a second team Center at the moment but he is also being asked to learn both tackle positions. While we do expect White to remain at Center, an injury to either Levey or Goddard could quickly force that to change.
Chad Walker, a 6-4 310 pound senior is still hanging around. But he will be so far behind by the time he returns that we do not expect much of a contribution from a kid who has battled his way back from so much adversity that it is truly a shame for it to end this way. As a matter of fact we will be surprised if Walker is still on the active roster by the time summer practice rolls around we are sorry to say.
That leaves William Brown, or 'Web' as he is called, the lone remaining returnee from last season's squad. Brown (6-5, 285) has all the tools. He is intense, he is smart, he is a worker. He has good footwork and he takes his charge personally. No doubt he will contribute this season and will be someone to watch in the very near future. But for anyone to expect Brown to be able to handle some of the SEC defensive lines he will be pitted against this season with any positive regularity ... that may be expecting too much. He will need to grow-up in a hurry. Redshirt freshmen offensive linemen that excel in the SEC are very very rare. Web needs to at least be a leg rester for the starters this season. Anything more from him will be a bonus.
If redshirt freshmen that contribute are rare, even rarer are true freshmen that contribute. Yet, this season more than any other since Lou Holtz's arrival, incoming freshmen will be called upon to battle. The rest of this is a crap shoot.
James Thompson (6-5, 310) out of Sumter will play right away. He may have been the best offensive line prospect in the state of South Carolina last year - better than Hart of Lambert according to more than a few who saw him play or saw him on film. It is likely that he will be used as a tackle, but as with all newcomers he will learn multiple positions and could be pressed into guard play if needed. Without a doubt Thompson is the most polished and has the best body of all the incoming freshmen offensive linemen.
Justin Sorenson (6-8, 310) out of Canada will also be required to step up to the plate and contribute this coming season. He is older than other newbies and he is a bit more matured physically. We understand that he has tackle written all over him. Rusty stood beside him recently and commented that Sorenson is the biggest offensive lineman we have signed in years.
Josh Winchell (6-3, 310) out of Southhaven, Mississippi is a guard if it comes down to it - but we seriously doubt his ability to contribute straight out of high school. We honestly expect him to redshirt this season.
If Jeremy Burgess (6-5, 260) is pressed into play during the upcoming campaign then consider it a desperation signal. He will develop into a fine offensive tackle within the next few years, but this year he will redshirt.
The same should be said for John Paul Gillis (6-6, 280). He has a long ways to go before being tossed into the frey of the SEC. We see no way he will be able to contribute this season unless there are no other options.
Evan Spanogians (6-4, 270) out of Ohio is a possibility. He actually holds the potential to contribute despite his somewhat lacking size. We're not talking height, we're talking weight. But from what we understand and have seen on film he has the footwork and he is a hard worker. We expect him to play this season - probably as a tackle in limited action.
Here are the only possible surprises.
Jamon Meredith (6-6, 265) out of Simpsonville will be pressed into offensive line duties in our opinions. He is coming in as a tight end, and he may find a way to stay there, but from what we are hearing he has offensive tackle tattooed somewhere on his forehead and he is going to have a hard time avoiding the position. Time will tell. If you hear of the move within the first ten days of summer practice, do not be surprised.
Finally, and we are not at liberty to share any specifics just yet, but we do expect an eventual announcement soon regarding moving a defensive tackle currently on the depth chart over to the offensive line. Think in terms of perhaps Chris Tucker. That is not written in stone by any means, but there is some talk going around right now that leads us to believe a move is eminent. Of course that may not be necessary if all above make it through the spring and into the summer. Another wild card in all of this is that our sources are telling us that Gumender Thind, another big Canadian signee, is close to qualfiying and if he does he will be invited to join the team in the summer rather than next January provided there is a scholarship available. Thind could really change the shape of the depth chart. You heard about this possibility here first, remember that five months from now.
So as you can see, the offensive line may be better with the starting five than last year, yet depth is a very serious concern. Offensive linemen go down quickly during the course of a campaign for many reasons. South Carolina is going to be hard-pressed to patch the holes left by injury, etc., with experienced capable bodies - not to mention he problems associated with fatigue by battle during the course of a long season.
All in all the offensive line is and will remain a big IF on the 2004 University of South Carolina football team. If they are able to avoid serious injury or otherwise to their five starters, if Coach Shankweiler is able to whip the newbies into quick shape, and if Mick and White return and are able to contribute in time for summer workouts, then there is a chance. If any or all of the just mentioned problems were to befall the Gamecocks this season - it could be a long year for the USC offensive line. Shank has his work cut out for him but there is promise in terms of talent and numbers if nothing else. It could all come down to the fortunes of one or two of the incoming newbies at some point in the season and that is never a promising thought in SEC wars. SC will need to play several of the younger players in game one at Vanderbilt, that is a must. They, several of the newbies, will need early and often game time if depth is to be developed for a second half of the season run.