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January 3, 2011

Elliott Pleased With First Year

The Broyles Award is given annually to the nation's top assistant college football coach. Auburn's Gus Malzahn won it this year after directing an offense that spurred a 13-0 record, an SEC championship and helped quarterback Cam Newton win the Heisman Trophy.

South Carolina's offensive linemen demand a recount.

"That's my man, right there," guard Rokevious Watkins said during practice for the Chick-fil-A Bowl last week. "It's been so fun learning under him and becoming a better line this year."

Line coach Shawn Elliott did what many thought impossible in 2010 -- he turned the Gamecocks' front five into a capable group. A weak spot for years, pre-dating coach Steve Spurrier's tenure, the line had gone through season after season of not opening holes for the running game and allowing plenty of holes for the quarterback to get sacked.

Down three linemen before the year ever started when Nick Allison quit, Quintin Richardson suffered a season-ending injury and then decided to transfer and Ryan Broadhead tore an ACL, there were plenty of excuses available. The Gamecocks were so thin that backup deep snapper Chris Vaughn came over to play offensive line, simply so the starters would have somebody to play against on the scout team.

Yet, USC began the year with a rotation of seven linemen, and finished with six, lasting all the way until practice before the final game of the season before seeing another major injury.

And played like it had two completely healthy rotations of All-Americans on almost every snap.

"The offensive line, they haven't played great, but they've played well enough to win some pretty big ballgames," Elliott said before the Chick-fil-A Bowl. "So I'm pretty pleased."

He wasn't being unnecessarily hard on his troops, even after it helped cut down on the sacks (30, compared to last year's 37) and finally aided the Gamecocks finishing somewhere other than last in the SEC rushing totals (eighth). Somehow, a group that had hardly ever played together despite having a lot of experience did.

"It's all him," tackle Hutch Eckerson said earlier this season. "He's intense whether we are in meetings, or if we are just talking to him or out here practicing. He's always got that mean eye and that smirk on. I like it and it keeps everybody on edge and fired up."

For the first time since 2007, USC won't have to replace its offensive line coach. The Gamecocks are glad for it, knowing the crazy man scowling and boring holes into them with his fierce eyes will still be around next year, blasting them apart during pre-game drills and contorting his face into a Silly Putty mask of fury on every Saturday.

"I coach with great emotion," Elliott said earlier this year. "I want players to play with great emotion."

Elliott watched the Gamecocks play in the disastrous Papajohns.com Bowl a year ago and saw how the line was simply going through the motions, how nobody seemed to be having any fun at all. Elliott wanted somebody to reverse that, and he wanted that somebody to be him.

He came in with a change from the previous regime, hollering at his players during practice and patting them on the back after. The camaraderie the line felt for each other was evident in the way they all mournfully regretted the lost chance of one of their mates, Garrett Chisolm, who hurt his knee before the bowl game and couldn't play his final game.

"We just all feel really bad for him," said Terrence Campbell, who started in Chisolm's place. "But we're going to get around him and pick him up."

"Just got to go out there and we don't have to win the game for him, but we need to play well for him," Elliott said. "We might shed some tears, give some hugs, but we're going to try and get a win and go out making us all feel good."

The Gamecocks failed in that mission, although the line didn't play badly. It only allowed two sacks and opened lanes for 151 rushing yards, despite Marcus Lattimore being knocked out in the game's first three minutes. USC finished a good year and began to look forward to next year.

USC loses Chisolm, Jarriel King and Eckerson but returns T.J. Johnson, Kyle Nunn and Watkins. Highly regarded prospect A.J. Cann redshirted this year and will have four years of eligibility remaining, while Ronald Patrick lost his redshirt but gained some experience.

Signee Kaleb Broome will enroll in January as the first piece of the line recruiting class and will be joined by at least five others during the summer, including four-star recruit Brandon Shell. Elliott will have another group to mold into what he hopes will be a better unit, although his first at USC was plenty special.

"It's been real exciting," he said. "I came into this season with really no expectations. Had a limited number of offensive linemen, really didn't know what the quality was. I knew we had talented players around us.

"I was really excited that if we could put together something a little bit better than the average, we could be a pretty good football team. It all came together. It's been a fun experience."

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