South Carolina will have the same starting right guard and center combination it had for the last 12 games of the 2016 season, but the Gamecocks coaches think it might at least look like brand new players.
Center Alan Knott has had an entire offseason of strength training, unlike a year ago when he had to sit out the spring and summer programs because of shoulder surgery, and the increased strength will make him a more effective player, coach Will Muschamp said. Right guard Cory Helms won’t be playing on a fractured leg as he was for most of last season.
“Those are two tough dudes, and they are going to fight for the Gamecocks,” Muschamp said. “They are going to play well for us this year. I’m glad both those guys are in South Carolina uniforms.”
Knott is a senior who will be making his 30th career start on Sept. 2 against N.C. State. Helms, another senior, will be making his 37th career start, his 14th at South Carolina after 23 at Wake Forest. Together, the veterans have provided the pulse of an offensive line reset under first-year line coach Eric Wolford.
“Alan and Cory have been tremendous,” Wolford said. “They are consistent. They work hard. There is no question they are leaders of our group. They are the hardest working guys. They push through. They hold each other accountable. They hold the rest of the guys in the group accountable.”
Wolford goes to Knott and Helms with questions about the line’s game plan, he said.
“I want to know how their brain sees it,” Wolford said. “I will ask them before I make a final decision on how we are going to call something. I trust them.”
Along with right guard Donell Stanley, a redshirt junior who is back in the starting lineup after a season-ending ankle injury a year ago, the rejuvenated Knott and Helms are expected, at least by the coaching staff, to make for a much-improved interior offensive line. That would help the Gamecocks keep a cleaner pocket for quarterback Jake Bentley and free up some of the team’s inside run plays, which were stuffed much of last season.
“The interior pocket is a premium,” Wolford said. “Donell, Alan, Cory Helms, their arrow is up right now. They are playing hard every day. They are pretty consistent in what they do; they have tremendous work ethic; they are heavy-handed guys. That’s the kind of guys you have to have in there.”
Knott’s strength, Helms’ health and Stanley’s return have at least given the offensive line more confidence as the 2017 season approaches.
“That will definitely help, but the big thing right now is just to keep working,” Helms said. “We still have a long way to go and a good first test. We are confident. We just have to keep working.”