Coach Spurrier himself commented on a number of occasions before the 2006 campaign that he thought this year's offensive line would be similar or possibly even better than a year ago. Well, three games into the season that doesn't appear to be the case, or does it?
Chris White, who claimed 28 career starts entering this season, was the Gamecocks lone full time returning starter along the line this year, but Jamon Meredith, Thomas Coleman, Web Brown, and James Thompson all started a minimum of three games during the 2005 season. Nevertheless, with roughly four new starters along the line in 2006, it is understandable that some growing pains have occurred along the way. What many fans don't realize, however, is just how similar this year's line truly is compared to the 2005 unit.
The 2005 Gamecock offensive line opened the season in less than stellar fashion by surrendering 3 sacks and paving the way for a mere 2.6 yards per carry rushing average against the mighty Central Florida Golden Knights. In comparison, the 2006 Gamecock offensive line opened the season with the unenviable task of facing off against an elite Mississippi State defensive front. The Gamecocks struggled at times to contain the talented Bulldog defensive line, as they surrendered 4 sacks and averaged only 2.8 yards per carry. That was not quite the opening that Gamecock fans were hoping for in the 2006 debut, but to put things in perspective, only one week later that same Bulldog defense held Kenny Irons and the vaunted Auburn rushing attack to a miniscule 3.1 yards per carry average.
The road did not get any easier the following week, as the Gamecocks played host to the Georgia Bulldogs and what many consider to be the best tandem of defensive ends in the entire nation in Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson. However, after struggling mightily to contain the Mississippi State pass rush, the Gamecock offensive line made significant strides in pass protection against the talented Georgia defensive front. The starting offensive line for the Gamecocks did not allow a single sack to the Bulldogs the entire night, but unfortunately the Gamecocks rushing woes continued against the punishing Bulldog front seven. The Gamecocks struggled to run the ball for the majority of the night against the Bulldogs, including in several key short yardage and goal line situations. South Carolina went on to rush for only 35 yards and averaged an embarrassing 1.6 yards per carry in an 18-0 shutout loss. However, many fans forget that the Gamecocks did not fare much better at this time a year ago against Georgia. The 2005 Gamecocks surrendered 4 sacks to the Bulldogs, and only managed to rush for 43 yards and an average of 1.9 yards per carry in a 17-15 loss to Georgia. In fact, every other major statistic between the 2005 and 2006 South Carolina/Georgia contests were comparable. The only real difference was South Carolina's inability to capitalize in red zone situations in the 2006 match up.
In the aftermath of the shutout loss to Georgia, Coach Steve Spurrier took a drastic approach to the offensive struggles and named seven new starters for the following week's match up with Wofford. Included in those seven new offensive starters were three fresh faces along the offensive line. True freshmen Garrett Anderson and Hutch Eckerson and former walk-on Seth Edwards all made their first career starts against the I-AA Terriers, and not surprisingly, the trio struggled in their first significant action on the college level. The Gamecocks surrendered 3 sacks to the Terriers and struggled to generate much of a push for the majority of the night, despite facing inferior competition. However, if nothing else, the trio of Anderson, Eckerson, and Edwards gained valuable playing experience that could pay dividends down the road.
With a 2-1 record, the Gamecocks attention now turns to their upcoming match up with Florida Atlantic. This game will serve as one final tune up before the Gamecocks play host to the mighty Auburn Tigers on September 28 and then venture into the heart of the SEC schedule. This game will also serve as the final tune up for the offensive line, and several linemen are expected to see action in the rotation against the Owls. The coaching staff will then look to determine which players give this team the best opportunity to be successful for the remainder of the year. One player that will certainly help the depth along the line is offensive guard James Thompson, who will be returning from a four game suspension when the Gamecocks play Auburn next Thursday night. Another potential contributor is converted defensive lineman Matt Raysor, who is expected to see his first action on the offensive side of the ball this weekend. The coaches are also hoping that left tackle Gurminder Thind, who suffered a foot injury against Georgia, will be able to return to action in the next couple of weeks.
Ultimately, the Gamecock offensive line is hoping for similar improvement to what they saw during the 2005 season. After the early season struggles of 2005, the line began to gel as a unit, and over the final seven games of the year, they helped the Gamecocks rush for an average of 116 yards per game, and they allowed less than two sacks per contest. Offensive Line Coach John Hunt claims an impressive resume of teaching and developing offensive linemen, and he has done a fantastic job with the players that he has available in his first two years at South Carolina. Assuming the line can stay healthy, similar progress to what the 2005 unit displayed should be expected from this year's line under Coach Hunt's guidance. Then, just maybe this year's line won't turn out to be that bad after all.
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