Look, if you know anything about football then you should know that football games are won in the trenches 99.999999999% of the time. If you don't believe that, then you probably don't know what you're talking about. The ability to pressure the quarterback and the ability to keep your quarterback in a clean pocket is how one wins football games. I may or may not have stolen that line from Colin Cowherd, but he Cowherd isn't the biggest fan of Clemsux either so he should be cool with it. Also, here is a clip of soon to be Hall of Fame Ray Lewis on the importance of the offensive line:
Now, the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line and the Gamecocks’ offensive line are in two completely different galaxies. That isn't nearly as much as a hit as it is a praise as to what the Cowboys O-line has done over the last few years. I’m not even a Cowboys fan (*cough* Go Pats *cough*), but their offensive line deserves a lot of praise for their success. South Carolina doesn't have a Travis Fredrick or Tyron Smith, but we do have three special offensive lineman in Zack Bailey, Corey Helms, and Alan Knott. Over half of the big brutes for Carolina have NFL potential in my opinion, and the other two starters for USC have the ability to become solid offensive linemen in the SEC. After saying all of this, I am going to go in to an in depth look at each starter on the offensive line. Starting with Zach Bailey then going right, I will look at their play and my personal expectations for them for this season.
Right Tackle: #78 Zack Bailey
In all honesty, Zack Bailey has gone through hell and back with position changes at Carolina. During his freshman year, he wasn't really expected to hit the field much. However, injuries among the offensive line would cause the true freshman at the time to get snaps. Zack was voted on to the All-SEC Freshman team that year, and was selected as a 3rd-Team All-SEC lineman by Athlon this year. Playing center and left guard for almost all of his career, and made the transition to right tackle this spring where is scheduled to start. Being 6’6” and over 300 pounds, the Summerville native has a chance to become an NFL offensive lineman under a former pro O-line in coach in Eric Wolford. A highlight for Zack Bailey isn't really a highlight, but here is Ben Boulware grabbing his butt during the Clemson-USC game last year:
@SECcountry @AlabamaFTBL @ClemsonFB @ESPNCFB Watch big #10. Is this was Clemson practices? pic.twitter.com/2fiyfxxgKq— Zackary Bailey (@ZackaryDBailey) January 1, 2017
No one hates Clemson as much as I do, but I DID think Ben Boulware was a jackass for doing that. Nonetheless, he did pull for USC during basketball season during both teams’ run during March Madness. Love him for that, but I still gotta hate him since he played for Clemson.
Right Guard: #51 Cory Helms
After sitting out the 2015 season due to transfer rules, Cory Helms started all 13 games last year with the first start at center and the rest at right guard. Cory was a freshman all-American at Wake Forest, making 11 starts in 12 games for the Demon Deacons. He started all 12 games again for Wake, with seven of them being at guard and the last five being at center. Helms would transfer to USC after his sophomore season, citing that he wanted to be closet to home. Cory, much like Zack Bailey, was quietly one of South Carolina’s very good players last year. When Carolina had good days in the ground attack, it was usually because Bailey and Helms were having a good day blocking. One of example of this came on the first play against Texas A&M last year, where both of them made pulling blocks and cleared the path for AJ Turner to run 75 yards:
Now, you're only gonna need to watch about the first three seconds of the video to know what I’m talking about. Another example of great blocking from Cory Helms was against Tennessee, where he opened the hole for a goal line score for Rico Dowdle:
Taking your man from point A to point B against their will is a great feeling pic.twitter.com/QKBIKRw2oG— Cory Helms (@CoryHelms7251) May 13, 2017
Going from a Freshman All-American to having to sit out a year isn't the easiest thing to do by far. From personal experience, I went from playing football my entire life to quitting in ninth grade and not playing in tenth. When I game back in my eleventh grade year, easy to say I was rusty as hell. I made starts here and there at offensive guard and defensive tackle, but it wasn't exactly the same. After a year of being in our coaches system, I think it is safe to say I flourished. I was an all-state, all-region, and north-south player after having to fight for playing time the year before. I’m not saying Cory Helms and I have the same sort of situation (mainly because he still had a somewhat decent year last year), but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a very good year this go round. Expect a lot from Cory Helms.
Center: #70 Alan Knott
Alan Knott hasn't had the easiest three seasons with injuries sidelining him at times, but he has appeared in 35 games since his redshirt freshman year. He redshirted his first year, and he would appear in all thirteen games the next year with eight starts. Over the next two years, Knott would appear in only 22 games over the next two seasons. Even though he's missed a couple of games, Knott has been named to the Rimington watch list the last two years. The Rimington Award is given out yearly to the nation’s best center, so obviously Knott is doing something right. A center is always the play caller for the entire offensive line, so Alan has a very hard job. To be honest, the offensive line as a whole wasn't at the top of the SEC last year. They finished 7th in total sacks allowed, but it isn't the easiest thing when there are so many NFL type pass rushers in the SEC. This isn't an excuse for Knott, or any of the linemen, but this number has to improve next year.
Left Guard: #72 Donell Stanley
Mainly a special teams player during his early years at USC, the high four-star recruit may finally come in to fruition and begin helping the offensive line in major ways. I’m sure it’s not the easiest thing to go under to a coaching change at your position your junior year, but Stanley has obviously shown Coach Wolford something to be penciled in as the starter going in to camp. He beat out DJ Park for the starting job after losing it in the first game last year, when he was hurt on the first drive of the game. The interior of South Carolina’s offensive line was underwhelming a year ago with only Bailey as a steady producer. Stanley out-performed all the other players at right guard in fall camp last year to earn nod for the first game, so the talent is there. This year, he’s slotted to take over Bailey’s spot at left guard. The Gamecocks need a force on the interior with Zack moving to right tackle. Hopefully, Stanley will stay healthy all year and be a serious force for the Gamecocks.
Left Tackle: #77 Malik Young
After DJ Park’s poor performance the first four games at right tackle last year, Malik Young would take over from him and keep his job for the remainder of the year. Mason Zandi was a fan favorite and the starter at left tackle for every game last year, but he wasn't the best when it comes to production. Playing against SEC defensive ends isn't always the easiest thing, but at times it would seem like Zandi and Young would get overwhelmed. Zandi did go undrafted, but he did sign a free agent deal with the San Diego Chargers and we all wish him the best of luck. With Zandi’s departure, this left a hole that Malik Young was chosen to fill. Moving from right tackle to left tackle isn't the easiest thing to do, but hopefully Young will have a good season along with the rest of the offensive line. This whole group has seem to underperformed, but hopefully Eric Wolford will get them right.
Now, what exactly do I mean by underperforming and rising? Well, underperforming is a word to describe what happened last year as an entirety grade for the offensive line. Being seventh in the SEC in sacks allowed, and the inability to get out of the hundreds except in two advanced metrics statistics shows something is obviously wrong. Over the last two years, the Gamecocks offensive line hasn't really performed too well, and injuries haven't exactly helped them. Playing in the SEC really doesn't help, considering the amount of elite defensive lineman that come out of the Southeastern Conference. All of our starting offensive lineman this year are three-star recruits or better, with three of them being four-star guys. Obviously, the talent is there with one of them being a Freshman All-American, one being a Freshman All-SEC Team player, and another being on the watchlist for the best Center in the nation. I’m not here to bash Shawn Elliot because I love the guy and I love the energy he brought to every game, but obviously something has to improve. Having Brandon McIlwain and Perry Orth and their inability to avoid the rush last year didn't help, and now with Bentley back their I have a feeling they are gonna do a lot better this year. I do believe in Eric Wolford, and I think he's gonna do a pretty good job leading this offensive line in the direction they need to go.
That’s where the rising part comes in. I don't think they'll be the best offensive line in the SEC, but I do believe they have a top three ability. If these guys don't perform well, we don't have a good season. It is as simple as that. Our chance to be successful rides on our offensive lines ability to protect Jake and create holes for our RBs. I believe in their ability, but ability in and of itself can't get them anywhere. We can only hope they can get it together this year.