As with the defensive line, the offensive line was a sore spot for Steve Spurrier's early Gamecocks teams. Due to a combination of poor player development and a failure to emphasize the position in recruiting, we had some very bad lines during this period, culminating in 2008, when Carolina had a putrid, 108th-ranked rushing offense and we had to witness varying combinations of Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia running for their lives every time they dropped back to pass. After 2008, embattled OL coach John Hunt was dismissed, and Spurrier promised improvement at the position, particularly when it came to the running game.
Unlike the defensive line, though, the offensive line is still a work in progress. True, Eric Wolford and then Shawn Elliott, both hired with their success leading effective read-option rushing offenses in mind, have had a measurably positive effect on our performance at the position. The 2010 line was pretty solid all around, and we were good at times last year. Elliott was reportedly courted by the Florida Gators recently, which should tell you something.
That said, the years of bad recruiting under Hunt have often left us with uneven experience on the depth chart, and that has led to uneven performances at times. Last year, when Kyle Nunn went down midseason, things got hairy for a while as Elliott plugged in various freshmen in Nunn's place. It's no coincidence that our two losses (Auburn and Arkansas) occurred while we were trying to find our way, even if Garcia's poor play probably had more to do with the first and poor defense with the second than the offensive line.
This year, some question marks remain. The projected starting lineup as of right now is as follows:
LT: Brandon Shell
LG: A.J. Cann
C: T.J. Johnson
RG: Ronald Patrick
RT: Mike Matulis
That's not a bad lineup. Johnson and Cann are both potential All-SEC candidates. Shell came in as a very highly touted recruit and has reportedly made major progress growing into his body and learning the offense. Matulis is a solid player whose insertion at left tackle late last season played a big role in helping us get the offense back on track. Patrick is inexperienced, but I've heard good things about him.
However, these guys have reportedly struggled mightily against the pass rush this spring. Now, that's undoubtedly in part because they've been going up against Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, but one would hope to see one's first-string line hold its own, even against the talents like Clowney and Taylor. We do play LSU next season, after all. In the SEC, it's a matter of course that you need to be able to block against elite defenses.
The real worry, though, remains depth. Cody Gibson is there to step in if one of the tackles goes down; Matulis outplayed him last year, but at least Gibson can provide experienced backup. After that, we're pretty thin. The good news is that because Spurrier and Elliott have put a premium on bringing in a few OL each class, we shouldn't have to play any true freshmen like we did last year. However, whether guys like Corey Robinson or Kaleb Broome are ready to make a positive contribution remains to be seen.
To make a long story short, it looks likely that we may be in a similar position to where we were last year--good with the starters, but in big trouble if a key player goes down, particularly at guard, where neither of the currently listed backups give me a lot of confidence. We're probably in a slightly better position than 2011, but not much. The good news is that we only graduate one current starter and should be much better in 2013. That's when I feel we'll really begin to reap the benefits of Elliott's efforts.