COLUMBIA — Shawn Elliott does not usually hem and haw when he discusses South Carolina’s offensive line.
For last season’s game at Florida, he replaced left tackle Corey Robinson and left guard A.J. Cann with Mike Matulis and Kyle Harris. USC’s offense was a mess in the 44-11 loss, gaining just 191 yards and allowing four sacks. In the days before the next game, against Tennessee, Elliott didn’t mince words when discussing Harris’ performance at Florida.
“He didn’t look very good,” Elliott said. “Didn’t look good at all. You won’t see him back out there.”
Since Elliott does not often bite his tongue, no between-the-lines reading was needed last week when he didn’t hesitate for a second after being asked how he thinks Brandon Shell will perform in his second season as the Gamecocks’ right tackle.
“Fantastic,” Elliott said.
Shell, a former highly regarded recruit from Goose Creek High, started for the first time last year as a redshirt freshman. It was a rocky experience, typical of a young offensive line starter. He started the first game at left tackle, didn’t start the next three, then found a home for the rest of the season as the right tackle, his position in high school.
While Shell seems to have a solid hold on the job, as USC prepares to open preseason practices Friday night, he could face a challenge from Matulis. So could the second-year starting left tackle, junior Corey Robinson. Matulis can play both spots, but how will his shoulders hold up? He underwent surgery on one after his true freshman season, 2011, and the other after last year.
Regardless of the challenge Matulis provides, Elliott is excited about Shell’s chances of matching his acumen with his prodigious, 6-6, 323-pound body — ideal size for an offensive tackle. He will be a critical part of an offensive line that loses just one starter, center T.J. Johnson, after allowing 38 sacks last season, 110th of 124 teams nationally.
“The way he practiced (in the) spring from the fall was just something that you could see him really grow up,” Elliott said.
Shell’s greatest improvement came with “knowing what people are going to do before they did it,” Elliott said. “It used to be, he tried to know what the right tackle was doing. Now, he kind of knows what the backs, the tight ends (do), the whole development of an offensive system. That’s where these guys grow and become better players. They’re physically capable to go out there and be great players, but you just can’t put it all together as soon as you step on the field.”
Matulis has already been through those youthful hiccups, having started five games in each of the past two seasons, including three at left tackle last season. If he is healthy, don’t discount him this preseason as a challenger, particularly to Robinson. (Redshirt freshman Mason Zandi enters preseason listed as the No. 2 left tackle, junior Cody Gibson as the No. 2 right tackle.)
“If he comes back 100 percent, that could get interesting at the right or left tackle position,” Elliott said.
Matulis missed spring practices for the second straight year, but is not on the injury report now, and Elliott expects him to fully participate in the first practice. Still, some uncertainty remains.
“He’s right where he needs to be (in rehab),” Elliott said. “I think his shoulders are doing a lot better. We’re going to find out a little bit more once we put the pads on and start going at each other a little bit and see what stress level you can put on him. Once you have (an injury), it’s going to kind of be with you forever. If you hurt a shoulder, it’s going to ache. So there’s going to be some bumps in the road with him, but we’re going to try to manage and see where we go.”
Matulis’ shoulder pain last season allowed Robinson to take over at left tackle, after not playing at all in first two seasons. He had mixed results last season, as he struggled at times with his initial burst after the snap. But as with Shell, Elliott sees signs of growth entering Robinson’s second season as a starter.
“He’s played enough snaps where he can kind of anticipate the snap count on things,” Elliott said. “Some may look at him as being slow, but it’s kind of jumping the snap count, learning to play the position just a little bit quicker, knowing that that snap’s coming. We’ve tried to help him out a little bit with that. I feel comfortable where we’re heading with him.”