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December 22, 2011
The happiest person in Columbia right now could be South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott.
Why? He might get a fifth-year senior back in the lineup, albeit for one game, the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska on Jan. 2.
Simply, the USC offensive line hasn't been the same since left tackle Kyle Nunn suffered a serious back injury against Navy on Sept. 17 and toughed it out the following week in the win over Vanderbilt before finally succumbing for good.
A few weeks later, we were told Nunn underwent surgery for a blood clot in his leg. Then we were told he would seek a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.
Now he might be back for a one-afternoon engagement only.
If Nunn is able to play against Nebraska, he would be welcomed back with open arms by Elliott for four reasons.
First, he would give the USC O-Line a much-needed veteran presence. After true freshman Mike Matulis was quickly pulled after starting the Auburn game, Nunn was replaced by redshirt freshman Cody Gibson, who took over at right tackle while Rokevious Watkins moved to the opposite side to fill Nunn's spot.
The fact Nunn was initially replaced by a true freshman in the starting lineup shows the predicament Elliott faced this season. Frankly, having a freshman with little or no experience take over for a fifth-year senior on the offensive line should never happen at a SEC school.
Matilus and Gibson both need to develop more strength and size before squaring off with SEC defensive linemen. Matilus said Monday that he currently weighs about 275 pounds. He must add 20 to 25 pounds before reaching his optimal weight.
USC's failure to sign a sufficient number of offensive linemen from 2007-2009 came back to haunt them in this situation.
Second, Nunn's return will help with the numbers. Elliott is working right now with six healthy offensive linemen during USC's bowl practices, not including players USC expects to redshirt (Harris, Shell and Sport) or those deemed not ready to play (Broome and Davis).
Sixth-year guard Terrence Campbell suffered a leg injury during the Clemson game serious enough to take him off the field. Ronald Patrick took over and sustained an injury as well, but he managed to stay in the game.
Campbell has not practiced this week, but could be on the field next week after USC arrives in Orlando. Elliott, though, is optimistic he will be ready to play, shrugging off his absence by saying he should know what to do based on his age and experience.
Third, if Nunn is able to play a significant number of snaps on Jan. 2, Elliott would be able to move Watkins to his more natural position of right tackle.
Left tackles in the SEC must be very agile and possess footwork to deal with lightning-fast defensive ends coming off the edge. Watkins started the first five games of the season at right tackle and appeared very comfortable. The demands at left tackle are different, though, since you're protecting the quarterback's blindside.
Fourth, Nunn was one of USC's best pass blockers and his absence was sorely felt in that area. With Nunn in the lineup, USC's pass blocking should improve and provide Shaw with the confidence boost he needs to remain on the pocket a split second longer before throwing the football.
USC head coach Steve Spurrier has said Shaw sometimes takes off too quickly when he senses pressure. Often, that's a byproduct of a lack of confidence in the pass blocking.
Granted, USC's run blocking was outstanding at times over the final seven weeks of the regular season. But Spurrier was noticeably frustrated with the pass blocking as Shaw had to frequently scramble out of the pocket to give himself enough time to pick out a receiver and throw the football.
Nunn's attempt to return for the bowl game appears to be a clue that USC is not optimistic about the NCAA granting his petition for a sixth year. In fact, they may have already been told by the NCAA that the request was denied, though it hasn't been revealed publicly.
Typically, a player (see Campbell and Rodney Paulk) must miss most of two full seasons because of injury before his request receives serious consideration from the NCAA.
Nunn redshirted in 2007, but that was the result of a decision by the coaches to give him time to physically develop. Thus, in the eyes of the NCAA, he has missed most of one season, not two.
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