An ancient sports adage says players take on the personality of their coach.
Case in point: South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, who is known for his hard-nosed and charismatic demeanor. Anybody who has witnessed his pre-game ritual with his unit understands that. Elliott launches himself into a frenzy and trades shoves with his players, all of whom are much bigger than he is.
As far as Elliott is concerned, the ritual plays a small yet vital role in the important process of developing the mindset an offensive lineman needs to compete successfully in the SEC because the conference is well known for producing outstanding defensive linemen.
"I don't like a lot of smiling. I don't like a lot of giggling, a lot of laughing," Elliott said on Wednesday. "I like a lot of focused eyes. Football is a violent sport and you've got to approach it like that each and every day. Game day is one of those days you can let it all hang out and almost get away with everything out there between the lines. I want a mean bunch of guys when they step on the field."
Now in his second year, Elliott says getting his linemen to play with intensity and all-out effort on every play remains a work in progress.
"At times I do," Elliott responded when asked if he has been able to get his players to get 'mean.'
"But there are a lot of other times when they can be a lot more physical and get a little more nasty. I expect them to come out on Saturdays ready to go."
The USC offensive line will certainly be tested Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN2) when they square off with a Vanderbilt front seven playing as well right now as any in the SEC.
Vanderbilt middle linebacker Chris Marve is recognized as one of the top players at his position in the SEC. The latest in a long line of standout linebackers for the Commodores, Marve was the league's career active leader in tackles coming into the season. He is currently tied for 13th in the SEC with 23 tackles in three games.
Along the defensive line, though, is where the Commodores have sparkled. Fifth-year senior Tim Fugger leads the SEC in sacks with three and ranks second in tackles for loss (5.0) behind teammate Rob Lohr, a defensive tackle who has battled back from injuries. Lohr has 5.5 tackles for loss.
Between Fugger and Lohr, the Commodores have two defensive linemen capable of disrupting the USC offense on nearly every play.
"This is an SEC contest," Elliott said. "Those guys are playing for a championship just like we are. They are very well-coached. They fly to the football. We've got to stay on blocks longer. We can't assume the play is over when it's not. We've got to keep fighting. We have to run the football. They're a good defense against the run. They're a good defense overall. We've got to attack them."
The challenge for the USC offensive line, Elliott said, is Vanderbilt knows coming into the game what USC will try to accomplish on offense - give the ball to Marcus Lattimore and establish the ground game early.
"There is no secret to our success thus far. We're running Marcus Lattimore and he's our back," Elliott said. "He's the one that makes this thing go right now. Certainly, we have to establish that. Both teams know that. I would imagine there are going to be a lot of guys up there waiting for him. We have to move them out of the way."
For the second straight game, Elliott elected to keep the starting five along the offensive line on the field for every snap against Navy. At times, the USC O-Line has opened up some large holes for Lattimore, helping him average 178 yards per game. Other times, they've struggled.
"It's just like any position on our football team - at times they do their job really well and at other times there are some breakdowns," Elliott said. "We can all get better. We all play a big role in everything we do, both running and passing. Everybody's got to do better. You can't pinpoint one particular thing. We have to develop better as an offense and strive to improve and we're going to do that.
"All in all, they're trying to do their jobs. They're opening holes for him. As coaches, we appreciate that. With a guy like Marcus back there in the backfield, I know I would be licking my chops to go out there and block for them."
Elliott echoed Lattimore's comment that the sophomore could have rushed for 300 yards had the execution been perfect. But Elliott approached it from a different perspective.
"One of the things I didn't like is we had a couple of missed assignments," Elliott said. "Marcus rushed for 200-something yards and could have rushed for 300-something yards. That was disappointing. It's step by step, as small as they are. They're getting better. Hopefully, at the end of the year I can say this was one of the greatest O-Lines we've ever had here. Who knows right now. I haven't seen them take a step backwards at this point."
USC has surrendered four sacks compared to 76 pass attempts in 2011. Navy had two sacks in last weekend's 24-21 victory by the Gamecocks.
"Our pass protection was pretty average, we can always do the little things a lot better," Elliott said. "It wasn't bad. They dropped a lot of guys off into coverage. Sometimes they were rushing only two or three guys. I hope we can protect a little bit. We had a missed assignment on slide protection down by the goal line. But that may have been the only casualty of the night. Other than that, it was OK."
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