Shawn Elliott frequently smiles when he's off the field. On the field is a different story, the stern flattop contrasting with the heavy knitted eyebrows and a Claymation face to present a photographer's dream.
On Friday, he was smiling after practice.
On Monday, he was scowling during practice, due to South Carolina's offensive line creeping steadily back to where it was last year.
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Elliott was coaching without three of the linemen on the most recent depth chart as each wore a yellow non-contact jersey or were otherwise out of practice. Brandon Shell was in yellow anyway after recovering from off-season labrum surgery, but was also recovering from a heat-related ailment suffered on Saturday; Cody Gibson was on the mend for at least two weeks with a sprained right knee; and Ronald Patrick was out for a couple of days (but has since returned).
It brought to mind Elliott's first year on the job, a 2010 season where the line was no-doubt improved, but razor-thin. After losing a couple of players before the season began, and knowing that a deep offensive-line recruiting class would most likely be redshirted, Elliott's line in 2010 was six men, all of whom were praying as hard as he did that they wouldn't get hurt.
The plea was answered, the line getting through the entire year until Garrett Chisolm was injured just before the final game of the season, the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Still, Elliott breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that he would have some returning talent in 2011, plus a lot of depth to back it up.
"Anytime you have depth and you have good numbers, it's about developing guys for the future," Elliott recently said. "Guys come in and look to play the next year or maybe even this year. Depth is something they haven't had around here in a long time."
But on Monday, left tackle Kyle Nunn had no backup, with Shell limited and Mike Matulis nursing a foot injury; right tackle Rokevious Watkins's top backup, Gibson, was out; the left guard spot was helmed by a redshirt freshman (A.J. Cann) with recent defensive-line transfer Kenny Davis behind him and the injured Patrick behind Davis; while center and right guard had backups that had never played in a game.
It was practice, not a game, and there are more than three weeks to go until there is a game. Plus, it's not like there is a whole lot of experience in the backup spots, stemming from last year.
Elliott knew he wouldn't have a lot of depth, but would have bodies. On Monday, he didn't have very many of those.
But, as the saying goes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger; Tuesday and Wednesday had Watkins and Nunn rotating between the tackle spots, "just in case."
"I'm primarily at right, but we're working at both," Watkins said. "We all need to be able to play wherever we're asked."
Elliott has a group of 15, which is great to have since he's always said that he only needs five. Gibson may be out for a while, but Shell and Matulis are practicing in full pads and yellow jerseys, so it only seems to be a matter of time.
After waiting a year, Elliott has what he likes, even if the first week of practice had a few more linemen on the shelf.
"We've finally got it and we're building on that," Elliott said. "We're recruiting now. It's still a work in progress. But it is nice to have some numbers."
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