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Five Goals for the Off-Season: Two, Improved OL Play

This post continues a series on issues confronting the 2011 Gamecocks. Again, these are in no particular order.

Carolina fans have complained loudly and frequently about OL play since 2007. Carolina has been through three offensive coordinators in that time: the loathed John Hunt, the promising Eric Wolford, and, finally, current coach Shawn Elliott. Elliott proved to be a quality hire for Steve Spurrier, as 2010 proved to finally be the year when Carolina found the success on the line that had eluded it for much of Spurrier's tenure. In addition to the emergence of Marcus Lattimore, improved line play was likely one of the major factors in Carolina's much more effective 2010 offense. The line was finally able to help field a competent running game and able to protect QB Stephen Garcia with some success, both of which paid major dividends overall.

More work remains to be done, however. Carolina still ranked 76th in the country with 2.14 sacks per game. That's up from 105th / 2.85 per game a year ago, but it's not great, and indeed improving from the putrid 2009 numbers isn't exactly something to write home about. Moreover, the improvement is at least partly due to the fact that Carolina threw the ball much less in 2010 than 2009. I attribute a lot of the problems with sacks to QB play--Garcia isn't the best guy at recognizing a blitz at the line, and nor is he the best guy at making good decisions when he sees a sack coming. He showed some progress at times this year, but at other times he looked like the same old Garcia, and Spurrier and G. A. Mangus need to continue to work with him on this issue. Our coaches also need to recognize the risks involved in not having a RB in the backfield to pick up the blitz and train Garcia to be careful in these formations. That said, our line deserves some blame for the sack numbers, too. They were pretty good against a three- or four-man rush, but a well-disguised blitz was poison to this unit. They have to get smarter. Hopefully another year will help them get there.

Our run numbers also deserve scrutiny. Sure, Lattimore was great, but did we really field a dominant run game? Our national ranking of 60th overall suggests otherwise. Of course, coaching and approach were again an issue here--if we hadn't abandoned the run when Lattimore went down against Kentucky and Florida St., our numbers likely wouldn't be this bad, and we might have 11 wins, too. (Grumble.) But the line wasn't exactly dominant blocking for the run. Lattimore's great runs didn't always owe to great holes; they often came on the heels of broken tackles. If Lattimore wasn't so good in that regard, we might be right back where we were in 2009, and one can only dream of what Lattimore might have done this year under better circumstances. Again, there's room for improvement here.

Some of this makes one wonder if Lattimore (more carries equals less sacks; broken tackles account for improved rushing numbers) wasn't the biggest difference in our improved offensive play this year. The good news, though, is that even if improvement on the line was only incremental in 2010, it should continue into 2011. Personnel will be a bit of a question mark at some positions. We lose two of our most important linemen, tackle Hutch Eckerson and guard Garrett Chisholm. However, we're getting farther and farther from the guys that Hunt corrupted, and some nice RS freshmen as well as true freshman Brandon Shell should be ready to get into the lineup and contribute. Along with another year for the group under Elliott's tutelage, that should spell improvement for the group. We're not there yet, but I've never been more confident that we'll eventually field a very solid line at Carolina. And it all starts up front.