Steve Spurrier acknowledges he has come to appreciate the importance of the offensive line a little bit more during his three years as head coach at South Carolina.
Last season was a difficult one for USC's offensive line. Spring practice began in mid-March with the unit under a powerful microscope. Offensive line coach John Hunt felt the wrath of Gamecock fans.
After 15 spring workouts, was progress made? Spurrier says yes. In fact, he's cautiously optimistic about the 2008 season.
"Our (offensive) line needs to play a little bit better than we've played in the past, a lot better," Spurrier said recently. "We're still waiting to see if we can open some holes and knock some guys backwards.
"But the offensive line has done a little bit better. They're not in bad shape. I'm not going to brag on them too much yet. They need to play better. We all know that. We have some new guys. We could have a good offensive line. We have the talent. They're big and strong now to really play well. We need some meaner guys. We need some nasty guys."
Spurrier points to former Michigan tackle Jake Long as a model for USC's offensive lineman to emulate. The Miami Dolphins selected Long, known for a mean streak, with the first pick of the 2008 NFL Draft 10 days ago.
"Jake Long said he loved to shove guys and if he could grab their face, he'd shove it into the dirt," Spurrier said. "I've asked our guys, 'Have any of you ever thought that is permissible?' Football is a tough game. Our guys need to be meaner and tougher. We're trying to get them that way."
Hunt, who has worked with Spurrier for a decade, agrees with the proposition that the offensive line should be improved this upcoming season.
"I think they're heading in the right direction." Hunt said recently. "There's no question we're farther along than we were last year, which is encouraging to me. But there's still things in there we have to iron out. The guys have a great attitude and they're working hard, so I've got no complaints."
While some people are quick to criticize Hunt for the offensive line's underwhelming performance in 2007, Spurrier isn't one of them. He says Hunt is doing everything within his power to get his players ready.
"John Hunt is working as hard as any coach in the country trying to get those guys ready to play," Spurrier said. "But the results have to be proven during the games."
With Jamon Meredith forced to sit out the first two games of the 2008 season as a condition of the NCAA granting his request for a medical hardship for the 2004 season, the coaching staff wasted little time this spring trying to get other players ready.
Without Meredith, USC will have a new starter at the all-important left tackle position for the first time in 19 games when it lines up against N.C. State in the Aug. 28 season opener.
Hutch Eckerson (6-6, 291), who started five games at left tackle as a true freshman in 2006 before redshirting last season in order to get bigger and stronger, and redshirt freshman Quintin Richardson (6-4, 289) battled for the right to replace Meredith.
By the time spring practice ended, Eckerson had moved ahead of Richardson, although the competition could continue into the fall.
Richardson is a local product from Spring Valley High School.
Meredith will return to active duty in time for the Sept. 13 clash against Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium. Depending how well Eckerson and/or Richardson are performing at the time, they could remain at left tackle and force the coaches to find another position for Meredith, or the opposite could happen.
If Meredith has to shift to another position, where would he go? Right tackle is a possibility, or one of the guard spots.
Behemoth right tackle Justin Sorensen (6-foot-7, 327 pounds) underwent minor surgery prior to spring practice and appears to have withstood the early challenge of redshirt Kyle Nunn to take his job.
Sorensen started all 12 games at right tackle last season, and 18 straight dating back to the middle of the 2006 season.
After recently being drafted by the B.C. Lions with the fifth overall pick of the CFL Draft, Sorensen could depart right now for a professional football career if he wanted to.
But the native of Vancouver Island, B.C. intends to stick around and complete his eligibility with the Gamecocks before attempting to earn a job with an NFL club next summer.
"I think Justin is definitely planning on coming back," Spurrier said.
Nunn, a native of Sumter, could be heard from before the 2008 season is over, however. He has impressed Spurrier and Hunt with his work ethic on and off the field and he could see the field at some point this upcoming season.
Both guard spots were a revolving door last season with six different starters getting a chance. By the end of the season, the coaching staff had settled on Gurminder Thind (6-4, 281) at left guard and Heath Batchelor (6-7, 308) at right guard.
However, Thind's career is now in jeopardy because of a back injury. His availability for the 2008 season is questionable.
If the USC had to play a game tomorrow - borrowing a phrase from Spurrier - the starting guards would be Batchelor and Lemuel Jeanpierre.
Batchelor was solid as a redshirt freshman last season over the second half of the season, and should anchor the right guard spot. The left guard spot was the subject of a hard-fought battle this spring before Jeanpierre took the reins.
With Kevin Young and Gurminder Thind trying to recover from injuries, the backups at guard when fall camp starts in early August could be Pierre Andrews and Terrence Campbell, a former defensive lineman.
Young's career-long struggles with injuries continued this spring when he underwent shoulder surgery and missed most of the workouts.
Jeanpierre converted to offensive line a year ago, and started three of the first four games at right guard in 2007.
The spring provided the coaches with a good opportunity to see what Campbell could do after he made a lot of progress towards the latter part of last season.
The coaches envisioned Garrett Anderson taking over at center from William Brown, who started all 12 games at that position last season, but the junior from Dutch Fork High School suffered a back injury midway through the spring.
As a result, Seaver Brown became the first-team center over the second half of spring practice. He started six straight games at left guard last season.
If Anderson returns to full-health and reclaims the starting center job, Brown could remain there as the backup or move to guard.
Ryan Broadhead was the backup center behind Brown when spring practice concluded. He joined the program in January of 2007 after redshirting for a semester.
When fall camp opens, Hunt will have 17 players at his disposal, enough for three full units and then some.
True freshmen T.J. Johnson (Aynor, S.C.), whom Spurrier recently said could challenge for playing time in 2008, and Eliot Williams (Woodstock, Ga.) will join the program in the fall.
"I think T.J. has a chance to come in and play as a freshman," Spurrier said. "We're looking forward to seeing what he can do."
FALL 2008 OFFENSIVE LINE ROSTER:
Garrett Anderson (C)
Pierre Andrews (G)
Heath Batchelor (G)
Ryan Broadhead (C)
Seaver Brown (C)
Terrence Campbell (G)
Hutch Eckerson (T)
Lemuel Jeanpierre (G)
T.J. Johnson (OL)
Jamon Meredith** (T)
Kyle Nunn (T)
Quintin Richardson (T)
Hardee Sanders## (C)
Justin Sorensen (T)
Gurminder Thind (T)
Eliot Williams (OL)
Kevin Young (G)
** Will Miss First 2 Games Of 2008 Season
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