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Wolford takes reins of USC running game

Eric Wolford USC offensive line coach
Eric Wolford USC offensive line coach

South Carolina’s new offensive line coach grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a coaching cradle that has produced a number of Division I head coaches, including Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and his brother, Mike Stoops at Arizona.

Unlike the Stoops’ boys, whose father was a football coach, Eric Wolford’s dad worked at a Youngstown steel mill, pouring hot iron in the foundry.

When Wolford acted up as a child, he had to accompany his father to work.

“That’s something my dad taught me at an early age: You better enjoy your profession,” Wolford said Tuesday. “I decided real quick that wasn’t a job for me.”

Instead, Wolford followed the Stoops brothers and the rest of the Youngstown gang into coaching, molding young men into football players and leaving the ironwork to his father, who is retired.

After a successful, two-year stint at Illinois, Wolford will try to resurrect a Gamecocks’ rushing offense that was the worst in the SEC the past two seasons. Wolford, 37, received a three-year deal to serve as USC’s line coach and running game coordinator, the duties he had on Ron Zook’s Illinois staff.

Financial terms of Wolford’s deal were not disclosed.

Wolford worked with USC receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. for a season under Mike Stoops at Arizona. Bob Stoops, who recruited Wolford to play at Kansas State in 1989 when Stoops was an assistant there, also played an indirect part in Wolford’s decision to come to Columbia.

“Long ago, Bob was a part of (the elder) coach Spurrier’s (Florida) staff, and Bob’s always told me coach Spurrier’s had a tremendous influence on him and his coaching,” Wolford said. “I always hoped someday I would have a chance to work for him because I’d always heard Bob Stoops say so many good things about the guy.”

Wolford replaces John Hunt, who was fired after the Clemson game following four seasons at USC. After Vanderbilt’s Robbie Caldwell indicated he would stay in Nashville, Spurrier turned to Wolford to fix a ground game that averaged 94.1 yards per game last season, 112th out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

That was 73 spots behind Illinois, which rushed for 169.8 yards per game. The Fighting Illini were even more productive on the ground in 2007, leading the Big Ten in rushing and setting a school record with 3,338 yards.

Wolford’s veteran line gave up 16 sacks in ’07, fewest in school history, and opened holes for running back Rashard Mendenhall’s record-setting season.

“I truly believe we have hired one of the best offensive line coaches in the country in Eric Wolford,” Spurrier said Tuesday in a release. “As all Gamecock fans know, we must run the ball much better than we have over the past two years. I’m really impressed by his background, especially with his success in the running game. Beginning this spring, we will make a commitment to becoming a much better running team.”

Wolford was a starting lineman for four years under Bill Snyder at Kansas State. After a 1-10 finish in 1989 in Snyder’s first season, the Wildcats won the school’s first bowl game four years later when Wolford was a senior.

Wolford hopes to mimic Snyder’s philosophy and turn USC’s linemen into overachievers.

“There has to be a commitment by the offensive line that we’re going to get better at one thing every day,” said Wolford, named one of the country’s top 20 recruiters last year by

Prior to Illinois, Wolford spent three years at Arizona, and also had stops at North Texas, Houston, South Florida and Emporia (Kan.) State. This will be his first SEC coaching stint.

On his final day with the Illini, Wolford drove through snow in Ohio while returning from a recruiting trip. He looked forward to his arrival today in South Carolina, where he bought a townhouse in Litchfield Beach two years ago after renting Charlie Weis’ beachside condo there for a couple of years.

“I thought I died and went to heaven,” Wolford said of his first trip to Litchfield. “It’s an unknown place to a lot of people in America, and, hopefully, it stays that way.”

Spurrier, who has three more hires to make, is considering former Florida quarterback Noah Brindise for the quarterbacks position. Brindise, whose younger brother is a walk-on quarterback for the Gamecocks, was on Spurrier’s Washington Redskins staff.

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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