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September 26, 2012

Offensive line takes step forward



All it really took for the South Carolina offensive line to perform at a higher level was seeing another Southeastern Conference team across the line of scrimmage.

After a lethargic performance against UAB two weekends ago, the Gamecocks offensive front paved the way for 144 rushing yards and impeccably protected quarterback Connor Shaw, giving him time to complete 20-of-21 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns in the convincing 31-10 victory over Missouri.

"We played a lot better," USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said Wednesday following a two-hour workout at the Proving Ground. "We played solid. They were real sharp mentally. They did their jobs and their assignments were pretty square right on. I was pretty pleased."

The quintet of center T.J. Johnson, guards A.J. Cann and Ronald Patrick, and tackles Corey Robinson and Mike Matulis was on the field for nearly every offensive snap of the win over Missouri.

While Elliott doesn't expect any changes to the starting lineup for Saturday's road contest at Kentucky (7 p.m., ESPN2), Steve Spurrier told reporters Wednesday that Matulis, who started at right tackle against Missouri, was held out of practice with a slight shoulder sprain. However, he should be ready to play Saturday night when the Gamecocks face the Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky.

"It's a little swollen joint, nothing too bad from what we hear," Spurrier said.

Brandon Shell, listed on the depth chart as the backup left tackle, took reps at right tackle on Wednesday, Spurrier said.

Corey Robinson made his first career start at left tackle in the Missouri win and should begin Saturday night's game in the same spot. Listed at 6-foot-8, 337 pounds, Robinson has exhibited new energy, new enthusiasm and a better attitude in the past few weeks.

"All along, Corey had the tools to be a good football player," Elliott said. "He's always been behind a little bit mentally. I'm not talking about knowing assignments. I'm talking about work ethic and doing things like that. He has turned things around a little bit. He showed us during practice that he could play, just like everybody has that goes out there and plays at some point. They've proven to us during the week they can get the job done. He did that.

"I'm all for putting a guy in there that showed me in practice that he can do it. It's only fair to the players to do that. He went out there and did well. Hopefully, he'll put together another good solid performance this week."

What lit the fire under Robinson and got him playing so well after a couple of seasons of uninspired practice outings?

"I think he saw our struggles at tackle and he said to himself, 'I can do this. I'm just as good as these guys right here. I just need to come out and prove it,'" Elliott said. "Once he showed me he could do it, I knew he always had it. Now he has to do it back-to-back weeks and keep doing the things necessary to stay in there. He has the tools and the mental capacity to go in there and have the fight to get it done. I'm pleased with him."

One of the few 'mistakes' the USC offensive line made in the win over Missouri came when Connor Shaw's 80-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was called back because of a clipping penalty on Matulis. After the game, Spurrier questioned the accuracy of the call, suggesting Matulis had complied with the rules by cut blocking within the tackle box.

"I thought it was a well-executed football play," Elliott said. "Unfortunately, there was a flag called on Mike. He did exactly what I told him to do and as long as he does that, I'm always going to be pleased with him. He did exactly what I teach him to do. I've been running that play for a long, long time. It's blocked the exact same way every single time.

"We're going to keep blocking it the same way, I can tell you that."

Barring an unforeseen injury, Johnson should make his 45th career start on Saturday night, putting him two starts short of the school record held by Cliff Matthews (47). Johnson will match former USC offensive lineman Travelle Wharton and defensive lineman Ladi Ajiboye for the second most starts in school history.

"T.J. has done an exceptional job," Elliott said. "When I first came in, one of the first questions I asked is who is our center and they said, 'We don't have one.' Then it went to be who is our most reliable lineman at this point. It was T.J. Johnson, so I said we had to get the ball in his hands so he can take care of things up there. You put your most dependable guy up front and go with it from there. He has really come a long ways, as everybody does as you mature and get more reps and experience. He's just a solid, solid football player. I don't think he has ever had a bad day here on the football field or lifting or his workouts in the off-season. He gives the same effort every single day."

THOMPSON TURNS INTO RELIABLE BACKUP: Connor Shaw's remarkable, almost flawless performance against Missouri has stolen the headlines, but the last three weeks have proven that redshirt sophomore Dylan Thompson is capable of playing well in case he is needed should Shaw aggravate the shoulder injury or suffer a new injury.

Thompson started the season slowly by going 0-for-3 passing at Vanderbilt after Shaw was forced to exit the game because of the shoulder injury. His performance raised concerns about whether USC had a backup quarterback.

"The Vanderbilt game, he got thrown into a very difficult situation because he hadn't played," Mangus said. "You've heard me say quarterbacks get better when they play. Every situation and how they react to it the next time they play is the determining factor of whether they've learned from it. Obviously, the Vanderbilt game didn't go the way Dylan wanted it or any of us wanted it, for that matter."

But the following week, with Shaw ailing with the bad shoulder, Thompson got most of the practice snaps and it showed on game day: 21-of-37 for 330 yards and three touchdown passes in the 48-10 victory over East Carolina.

"He threw some beautiful deep balls and did some good things," Mangus said. "What I have learned is he's a guy that needs to settle down when he first gets in there. He can be a little hyper when he first gets in there. But that's not unlike a lot of guys. It's nice to know we have somebody else who has some experience and played pretty well."

KENTUCKY UPDATE: Three days before kickoff, Kentucky expects starting quarterback Maxwell Smith will be ready for Saturday's game against USC in Lexington, Ky. Without him, the Wildcats offense struggled throwing the football (8-for-27 for 60 yards) in a 38-0 loss at Florida last Saturday. Smith has completed 68.5 percent of his passes (102-for-149) for 966 yards and eight touchdowns in three games.

If Smith isn't healthy enough to play, Kentucky would turn to true freshman Jalen Whitlow to try to fill the void, another sign of how far former highly-touted prospect Morgan Newton, a senior, has fallen off the radar for the Wildcats.

"We anticipate Max being able to go," Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said Wednesday during the SEC teleconference call. "If not, Jalen Whitlow will be our starter for the game. It was a tough situation last week to throw a true freshman in there that hasn't had a lot of snaps.

"It was on the road against a top-ranked team and top-ranked defense. He wasn't ready for that type of environment, but he has gotten most of the No. 2 reps for the last three weeks. He's coming but he doesn't have the full package of our offense. But he gets closer and closer."

A former Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Indiana, Newton has completed 50.9 percent of his passes in his career (190-for-373) for 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He started nine games at quarterback in 2011, but was overtaken by Smith last spring.

Kentucky backup cornerback Cartier Rice, a fifth-year senior, is a former high school teammate of USC running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Nick Jones at Byrnes High School in Duncan. A thigh bruise kept him off the field for last week's shutout loss at Florida and Wednesday was the first day he had practiced. He should be available for Saturday's game, Phillips said.

MISCELLANEOUS:

* Spurrier said senior cornerback Akeem Auguste, ready to make his season debut, "looks like he can play a little bit up there for the first time this year, so we're very healthy going into the ballgame."

* Saturday's game features a matchup between the two least penalized teams in the league. USC leads the way with 18 penalties in four games for an average of 35.8 yards in penalties per game. Kentucky is the second least penalized team in the SEC with 36.8 yards per game. "It's probably called real good coaching if you ask me," Spurrier laughed. "Well, real good assistant coaching. Our guys have been pretty disciplined. We had some careless penalties a couple weeks ago, but overall we're trying to play some disciplined ball. As we all know, you can win a bunch of games if you don't beat yourself. We're trying not to beat ourselves."

* Mangus said Shaw graded out at 85 percent for the Missouri game even though he completed 20-of-21 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. "We'll still trying to coach them to go play the perfect game," Mangus said. "Maybe you can't, but we'll try. He got a couple of minuses. There were some little things in which he can get better. Maybe we'll strive for 21-of-21 next time." Mangus described a grade of 85 as "pretty good."

* Mangus said he is pleased with the way the USC quarterbacks have spread the ball around to the wide receivers so far this season. Eleven different receivers caught at least one pass in the East Carolina game, while nine receivers caught a pass in the Missouri win. "It shows we'll take what the defense gives us," Mangus said. "It makes defenses try to prepare because they don't know who we're going to all the time. Connor is good at that, so it doesn't surprise me at all. He's going to look around, he's a smart guy and he'll take what the defense gives him. He did a good job of that in the last game. They played a lot of soft zone, so he took it underneath. He made a couple of nice deep throws. The one to Nick (Jones) was great."

* The USC coaches will wear Coach to Cure MD patches this week to raise awareness and funding for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research.



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