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What to Watch for in Spring Football: Will the OL Take the Next Step?

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Kevin C. Cox

When we learned that Sean Elliott was staying at Carolina after overtures from Nick Saban and Alabama, we were ecstatic. Since arriving in 2010, Elliott has overseen the evolution of the Carolina offensive line from being a perpetual Achilles heel to being a competent unit. He's had a hand in developing several solid linemen, including Rokevious Watkins, who was the first Carolina lineman to make first-team All-SEC in who knows how long. Not coincidentally, the Gamecocks offense has become a force to be reckoned with over the past three years.

Still, the evolution hasn't always been smooth. The OL struggled at times last season, particularly in run-blocking. The running game never fully clicked last year, despite a strong stable of runningbacks that included Marcus Lattimore for most of the year, as well as a dangerous rushing quarterback in Connor Shaw. The running game ranked only 89th in the nation on the year. Although others had their moments, A.J. Cann and T.J. Johnson were the only two who were very consistent.

The good news is that Carolina returns a ton of experience on the OL. Longtime starting C Johnson is gone, to be replaced by Cody Waldrop. He'll be given the challenging task of coming in and playing a big role as a RS freshman. At other positions, though, Carolina looks to be in good shape. Cann is back at OG and figures to be in the running for post-season honors. His counterpart, Ronald Patrick, isn't as well regarded, but he enters spring as the sole senior among the starters, and hopefully his experience will pay off. At OT, Corey Robinson and the highly recruited Brandon Shell struggled at times last year, but they're entering a point in their careers at Carolina when OL with their talent and potential oftentimes make a big jump in productivity. Reports out of practice have been positive for these two so far. Cody Gibson will serve as a good backup for them, as will Mike Matulis if he recovers from his shoulder injury.

The players to keep your eyes on are Waldrop, Robinson, and Shell. Waldrop is inexperienced, and Robinson and Shell were liabilities in run-blocking last year. However, if Waldrop can be at least serviceable in his first year and Robinson and Shell can make the expected leap to being good, this could be the best OL we've had during the Spurrier era. When you look at the roster, you don't see many underclassmen. Waldrop and Shell are the only two in the starting lineup, and Shell was one of the most heralded OL we've ever signed. Our experience matters at this position, where physical maturity and the ability to do the right thing instinctively make a huge difference.

Having a roster like this could be where we really see the benefits of Elliott's coaching. Developing an offensive line doesn't happen over night, hence Elliott's uphill battle to this point. It's all about numbers and development. To prepare for the college game, most OL need time to be coached and to build their bodies, and many prospects don't pan out. Therefore, it's important to sign multiple OL per class, which we've done under Elliott, who is also known as a good teacher of technique. I think you'll see that this year, and I'm really excited to see what this group can do.