After a particularly thin spring practice, Shawn Elliott is happy this fall to again have some raw material with which to work.
“We’ve got 15 guys out here, three groups, that’s pretty good,” said Elliott, South Carolina’s sixth-year offensive line coach.
Half of those 15 offensive linemen will make up the game day rotation when the season starts Sept. 3 against North Carolina, and even though it’s only the first week of fall camp, Elliott has a good idea of which seven or eight players that will be.
He’s just not ready to share the information yet.
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“I think we’ve got the seven or eight,” he said. “We will wait until later on to put those names out.”
There are some educated guesses that can be made now. Senior Brandon Shell, who has started a team-high 36 games, is working as the starting left tackle. Next to him at left guard is senior Mike Matulis, who is attempting to come back from shoulder and knee injuries. Alan Knott and Cody Waldrop are battling for the starting center job. Senior Will Sport is working with the first team at right guard, and Mason Zandi, back from a hamstring injury that cost him all of spring practice, is working with the first team at right tackle.
That’s six names right there, and sophomore tackle D.J. Park and redshirt freshman guard Donell Stanley look like the best bets to round out the rotation even though head coach Steve Spurrier keeps talking about the Gamecocks group of incoming freshmen offensive linemen – Blake Camper, Christian Pellage, Zack Bailey and Trey Derouen.
For the veterans, health will be the biggest key. Shell and Matulis sat out spring practice along with Zandi rehabbing old injuries. (By the last week of spring practice, the Gamecocks had only six healthy offensive linemen.) Shell returned from shoulder surgery in time to participate in all the team’s summer workouts and is making the transition from right tackle to left tackle this fall.
“I feel good,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for me to help the team out.”
Shell last tried the switch from the right to left side during his redshirt freshman season, and Elliott is optimistic it will work now that Shell has more experience.
“I think you just have to look at who your strongest protector is and at this point in time, it’s Brandon Shell,” Elliott said. “He’s got the physical traits and the ability and the experience to move over there and be one heck of a left tackle. I think he’ll be just fine at left tackle.”
Zandi still has to prove he can handle the starting right tackle job, and Elliott expects to have a pretty good idea of that early in camp.
“The progression of Zandi is up in the air right now because he missed all of spring with a hamstring injury so you weren’t able to evaluate him with that first unit,” Elliott said. “We will see where he is. I think within the first seven days, we will know exactly where he is. He’s strong; he’s physical; he’s athletic. Right now, he’s on pace to be that right tackle.”
If Elliott isn’t happy with Zandi at right tackle, he will move Matulis to that spot, he said.
Matulis, who has missed most of the last three seasons due to repeated injuries, “is one of those guys who can play it all for us except potentially center and he’s even mentioned playing that for us as well,” Elliott said.
Shell was encouraged, he said, by what he saw this summer from the entire offensive line group.
“We have good chemistry,” he said. “We lost A.J. (Cann) and Corey (Robinson), but this summer everybody jelled together, and we have tremendous chemistry on the offensive line.”
He’s not ready to promise what that will mean for the fall, though.
“We have to prove it,” he said. “Everybody has to prove it. We are going to try to.”
Elliott is taking a similar wait-and-see approach.
“It’s not for me to sit here and make a prediction,” he said. “We’ll see how the season plays out. At the end of the day, everybody will judge us based on what we’ve done on Saturdays.”