Shawn Elliott has always been a coach who never lets his players rest on their past laurels. Watching his Tasmanian Devil routine before games is all the evidence needed in that regard. He wants his players to play every snap like he did, when he never took a play off as a four-year wild man at Appalachian State.
His constant motto has been that his rotation is never set in stone. He’ll play the guys that play the best, and his South Carolina offensive line rotation may change from game to game.
Yet, the 2013 season stands to resemble the 2012 and 2011 seasons in terms of stability — and perhaps more so. The Gamecocks return four proven starters, and Elliott is satisfied that the lone newcomer is fully capable of handling his job.
“If you look at it, we’ve got six starters back,” Elliott said last week. “Cody Gibson started a game. Mike Matulis has started a game. And of course, the guys we got up front with (Brandon) Shell, (Ronald) Patrick, (A.J.) Cann, Corey Robinson. I feel pretty good about where we are.”
The Gamecocks return the same rotation that started eight of the final nine games in 2012, minus center T.J. Johnson, who started a school-record 53 straight games from 2009-12. The hulking Shell (6-foot-6, 323 pounds) has settled at right tackle after a short-lived experiment at left, while one of the biggest surprises of last year, Robinson (6-8, 341) is entrenched at left. Sandwiching center are junior Cann and senior Patrick, which leaves center as a question mark.
Elliott feels confident redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop will flourish in Johnson’s old spot, after learning the trade last year and after repping throughout spring practice. Behind him is redshirt freshman Clayton Stadnik. It’s the obvious target for enemy defensive lines, but with the leadership around the center spot, Elliott thinks that there will be no emergency gaps to fill.
“Cody Waldrop’s doing a fine job manning the center position,” he said. “We’ve got quality backups, and we’re just looking forward to a great season.”
Spurrier said in the spring that he liked the O-line’s stability but wouldn’t know how good it will be until it plays. “I don’t much like to praise it before they go out and do it,” he quipped at a Gamecock Club meeting.
The line plays a crucial part in running the Gamecocks’ preferred zone-read system, and now USC doesn’t have the back (Marcus Lattimore) that was so vital to it. Throw in that the line may have to adjust on the fly to two quarterbacks in-game, and the center could experience some headaches.
Elliott doesn’t think it will be too big of an adjustment. Waldrop was around to experience the system throughout last season and the spring, and the other four are used to blocking and opening holes for different backs and quarterbacks. Then there’s the backup talent, such as Gibson and Matulis, who could push the starters.
“What I could see, possibly, is Cody Gibson and Mike Matulis,” Elliott said. “Mike comes back, and he’s 100 percent healthy. Mike’s a pretty doggone good football player. He comes back 100 percent, that could get interesting at the right or left tackle position.”
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Who’s back: Four starters, with left tackle Corey Robinson, left guard A.J. Cann, right guard Ronald Patrick and right tackle Brandon Shell. Backup tackles Mike Matulis (shoulder surgery) and Cody Gibson also return.
Who’s gone: Center T.J. Johnson, a rock in the middle for 53 straight games, graduated. Kyle Harris, who started one game at left guard last year, transferred.
Best battle: Cody Waldrop vs. expectations. He’s been ushered into the starting center role with no hesitation, but if he can’t perform, Elliott may give Clayton Stadnik a shot. It’s not just playing the position, it’s trying to replace Johnson.
Key question: Will not having Lattimore affect the line’s ability to run the zone-read system? Lattimore was so talented with it that they installed it just for him. The same holes that the line was used to opening may not be conducive for other backs.
Player to watch: Robinson. He played very well at left tackle last year and will be trusted to protect the blind sides of Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. His size could have NFL scouts coming around in force.