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May 10, 2013
Spring rewind: Offensive linemen
Steve Spurrier believes that South Carolina's veteran-laden offensive line, highlighted by four returning starters, could be the best yet in his nine years as coach.
Building an SEC-caliber offensive line has proven to be a formidable task - and perhaps more difficult than some envisioned - but a laser beam-like focus on the vital position in the last few signing classes has replenished the depth.
Eleven of the 16 scholarship offensive linemen in 2013 will be freshmen or sophomores, giving Shawn Elliott the opportunity to mold and shape the players as he sees fit.
Will the 2013 unit be the best of Spurrier's tenure? Potentially, yes. USC has allowed fewer than 30 sacks just once in Spurrier's first eight years, including 38 last season, the second-highest number behind the 39 allowed in 2008.
However, the number of quarterback hurries has diminished from 50 in 2009 and 2010 to 24 in 2011 to 17 last season.
Cautiously optimistic would best describe Spurrier's approach going into the start of preseason camp.
"It could be the best we've ever had, but I hate to brag too much on them until they actually go do it," Spurrier recently said. "We could have a good offensive line. We'll just have to wait and see."
Clearly, run-blocking has been USC's forte the last few years, along with a talented running back corps led by Marcus Lattimore. The per-game rushing average - another key indicator of an offensive line's effectiveness - peaked at 192.1 yards in 2011 but fell to 138.5 yards last season.
The four returning starters (left guard A.J. Cann, right guard Ronald Patrick, right tackle Brandon Shell and left tackle Corey Robinson) have combined for 57 career starts, 25 by Cann in his first two years of active duty, the most among any returning player on USC's roster.
The Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School product could become one of the few players in USC history to start 50 or more games by the time his career is done, as long as he stays healthy.
Patrick, meanwhile, will be the lone senior among the offensive linemen in 2013.
The biggest concern at guard? The lack of experienced depth behind Cann and Patrick. So, it's essential the duo avoids injuries. Will Sport, who played in 12 of 13 games last season on special teams, and Brock Stadnik are the principal backups, although freshman D.J. Park, an early enrollee, could challenge.
As long as he continues to grow and develop, Shell could be the first Gamecock offensive player to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since wide receiver Troy Williamson in 2005.
Spurrier labeled Shell as a potential "big-timer."
"He's about 6-6, 315 (pounds) and he's a lot stronger and quicker than he's ever been," Spurrier said. "His work habits have been very good. He has worked hard in the weight room. Brandon should have a heck of a year. Corey Robinson, on the opposite side, is a very good athlete."
In terms of depth, USC finds itself in a much better spot at offensive tackle, where Mike Matulis (10 starts) and Cody Gibson (six starts) will be ready if either Robinson, perhaps the most pleasant surprise along the offensive front in 2013, or Shell falters. Matulis, though, is finishing his rehab from a second shoulder surgery in two years.
When spring practice started, speculation centered on whether Matulis would redshirt in 2013, but that talk dissipated over the course of the 15 workouts. By the time spring practice ended on April 13, Spurrier and Elliott spoke of Matulis possibly playing in 2013 rather than sitting out.
Gibson has battled his own health problems, missing a month of action last season due to an illness. But he's fine now and could battle Robinson or Shell for a starting job.
Mason Zandi is 6-foot-9, making him an inch taller than Robinson, but he weighs about 50 pounds less than the presumptive starter at left tackle. So, adding weight to his large frame will continue to be Zandi's main objective in 2013.
With four experienced starters, Elliott's main concern during the spring was preparing redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop to take over for the graduated T.J. Johnson, a seventh-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Waldrop has the size (6-2, 312), strength and intangibles (maturity, leadership) to fill the most important job along the offensive front, except perhaps for left tackle. Redshirt freshman Clayton Stadnik was elevated to top backup when Kyle Harris transferred.
Since Park enrolled in January, four freshmen join the program this summer - Bryce King (Park's teammate at Dillon High School), Alan Knott, Na'Ty Rodgers and J.P. Vonashek.
FALL OFFENSIVE LINE ROSTER
A.J. Cann (RJr.)
Cody Gibson (RJr.)
Bryce King (Fr.)
Alan Knott (Fr.)
Mike Matulis (Jr.)
D.J. Park (Fr.)
Ronald Patrick (Sr.)
Corey Robinson (RJr.)
Na'Ty Rodgers (Fr.)
Brandon Shell (RSo.)
Will Sport (RSo.)
Brock Stadnik (RFr.)
Clayton Stadnik (RFr.)
J.P. Vonashek (Fr.)
Cody Waldrop (RFr.)
Mason Zandi (RFr.)
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