As with the other offensive positions, Carolina has the luxury of returning a great deal of experience from the 2013 team. The Gamecocks return four starters in guard A.J. Cann, center/guard Cody Waldrop, and tackles Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell. Cann, Robinson, and Shell each explored their NFL Draft options, but each returned to form the core of what should be one of the SEC's best offensive lines in 2014. The Gamecocks also return several other players who have starting experience, such as Cody Gibson, Mike Matulis, and Clayton Stadnick. Mason Zandi is listed as the backup at left tackle after seeing some time at tight end last year. This is both a talented and deep group of linemen, a testament to the job our coaching staff and particularly OL coach Shawn Elliott have done recruiting and developing the position.
Given the roster we return, there will be less hand-wringing about the offensive line this spring than there has been in many years past. However, one player to keep an eye on is Na'Ty Rodgers, who is listed as either/or starter at right guard along with Waldrop. A couple of weeks back, I listed Rodgers as one of the five players I am most interested in following this spring. Rodgers was the only offensive player I listed given that whereas we're stocked on offense, a lot of attention this spring will be directed towards whether we can fill our many holes on defense. Here's what I had to say about Rodgers at the time:
Na'Ty Rodgers. Rodgers is listed as the either/or starter at right guard along with Cody Waldrop. Waldrop is listed as the either/or starter at center along with Clayton Stadnick. Waldrop is probably the one out of this three who is most likely to maintain a starting spot, with how Rodgers does in the coming months likely to determine whether we're looking at a Stadnick/Waldrop or a Waldrop/Rodgers duo at the two positions. The coaches like Rodgers physically; he's ready to go in that regard. The question is whether he's mastered his assignments. If so, he should start opposite A.J. Cann and follow in Cann's footsteps as the next All-SEC-level guard at Carolina. The coaches have been extremely high on him ever since he arrived.
Among the experienced players, I'll be curious to see if there's indication that Robinson and Shell are progressing in pass protection. Both had good years last year but were more effective run-blocking than pass-blocking, particularly against faster, more agile ends. Hopefully, another year of experience and S&C training will help them in that regard, particularly considering that Dylan Thompson is much less likely than Connor Shaw to turn would-be sacks into seven-yard runs, although in his defense, Dylan gets the ball out faster.
Otherwise, I'll simply be curious to hear about the progress of the next generation of Carolina linemen. How far along are Matulis and Gibson from recovering from their injuries? Is the highly recruited Brock Stadnick ready to take Cann's place at left guard? How much further along is the psychically impressive Mason Zandi in his development? These are all players who could play a role this year if we experience injuries, and they'll have to be ready to play a big role in 2015.