In some ways, it was hardly fair how things fell for Donell Stanley.
The former four-star offensive line prospect had worked his way into the South Carolina football team’s starting lineup in his third year in the program, poised to convert steady development into playing time under a new coaching staff.
It lasted all of a few plays, and followed with a long, drawn-out rehab process with a false start in the middle.
“It was frustrating,” Stanley said. “Especially at the time. Didn’t know how to really take it. But I just found some positives in it. I got back, but it still wasn’t to 100 percent. So he wanted to just sit me out and not take any chances with it. Hopefully, the ankle’s doing good and, hopefully, I can get back and get back healthy and get back out there.”
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The high ankle sprain Stanley suffered in the opening moments of 2016 ended up costing him the whole season. There were moments where it seemed as if he might return, but in the end, the 6-foot-4, 317-pound guard went for a medical redshirt.
He’d been mostly a special teamer the season before, but showed enough to get that starting nod and provide some depth on the interior for USC’s line, but that lasted only a few plays.
“It was definitely hard on him,” guard Cory Helms said. “He had a lot of support from us. He’s one of the most likeable guys in the world. It was hard. I think it will end up fueling his fire a little bit more this year.”
Stanley, a product of Latta High School, came out of spring looking to have a first-team spot, as a spot opened when Zack Bailey moved outside to right tackle. Stanley worked with the starters in the spring game, but will likely still have to hold off D.J. Park, another well-touted lineman from the same region of the state.
The whole group, which lost only tackle Mason Zandi, had to go through the transition of Eric Wolford taking over for Shawn Elliott, but Stanley made a good early impression.
“He’s been working hard,” Wolford said at the start of spring practice. “Obviously, takes dunks every day in the classroom. When we talk about football, he asks good questions. He’s able to repeat back to me some of the things that we’re trying to teach. That’s a big part of teaching, can you teach it to me? Can you teach to me what a cage block is? When they start doing that, I feel like that gives them a chance to be a better player because now they can play fast and do what they need to do.”
The injury limited what Stanley was able to do in terms of off-the-field work through the 2017 season, but he said there were a few things he could manage.
“We did a lot of stuff, and I got a lot stronger, especially with my upper body, since I couldn’t walk or anything on it,” Stanley said. “I just took what advantages I could with it. Did some upper body stuff, worked on my hands. I feel like I got better during the time as much as I could.”
Without him, the Gamecocks offensive line struggled mightily with depth concerns. By season’s end, Park, who backed up at tackle and guard, had seen his snaps drop dramatically. Tackle Blake Camper also missed most of the season, so freshman Malik Young ended up starting the second half of the year.
The unit overall struggled, as the Gamecocks were one of the worst rushing teams in the country most of the year (a freshman quarterback also didn’t help their sack numbers).
Next year, USC should at least have more pieces in place. Young moved to left tackle. Bailey, the team’s best lineman, moved to right. Helms and Alan Knott have 42 starts in the interior line in the past four seasons they’ve played as Gamecocks.
And Stanley might slot into the last spot, making good on the missed chance he came so close to making good on a season ago.
“Donny’s great,” Bailey said. “I love him to death. Last year, he had that injury and that hurt him a lot. He was struggling coming back, struggling getting healthy and to get his strength back. I think now he just has that strength again. He’s done his rehab. He does rehab every single day.
“I think that’s what’s showing right now is just the fact that he’s up and ready to go and he’s being physical again.”