COLUMBIA -- The last football game Mike Matulis played in his home state of Florida was a win for his Park Vista High School team in the 2010 regular season finale just up the road at Lake Worth.

Matulis never imagined that, a little more than a year later, he would return home and play in a bowl game against one of the most storied programs in college football history. Moreover, he couldn't have envisioned his true freshman season at South Carolina unfolding as it did.

Matulis arrived in Columbia this summer as a fairly well-regarded recruit -- the No. 33 offensive tackle in the Class of 2011, according to Rivals.com. But the Gamecocks were already set at tackle, with a pair of fifth-year seniors, Kyle Nunn on the left side and Rokevious Watkins on the right. The coaches planned to redshirt Matulis.

Then Nunn, already battling a back injury, was knocked out for the season after just four games because of a blood clot in his leg. Matulis was forced to start at left tackle against Auburn. He struggled early and was benched. For the next four games, Watkins played left tackle and redshirt freshman Cody Gibson played right tackle.

Gibson's inconsistency led the coaches to give Matulis another chance. He started the final three regular season games at right tackle and performed better. It seemed he would once again get almost all the snaps in Monday's Capital One Bowl against Nebraska in Orlando, Fla., but typical of Matulis' season, that plan could change with the potential return of Nunn.

Nunn practiced last week for the first time in three months, and there is a chance he could play in the bowl game. Because he hasn't played in so long, it remains unclear how large of a workload he will be able to handle. So Matulis certainly isn't out of USC's plans for Monday at this point.

Reflecting on his season, Matulis summed it up succinctly and accurately by saying: "It was an experience."

Matulis' family members will make the 190-mile trip from Boynton Beach up to Orlando. Regardless of how much Matulis plays, they and USC fans will see a different player than the guy who had to start against Auburn. The biggest difference?

"Confidence," said USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott. "That's the No. 1 thing. When you get these guys and they're coming here straight from high school, they have no idea. The game is so different -- just the concepts, the terminology. You've got to learn the game of football. You can't just learn the techniques in front of you: 'Hey, I've got to block this guy.' You've got to learn the offense. It was a struggle early, as it is for a lot of people."

As Matulis recalled those early issues, he rattled off several areas where he felt less than adequate: his pass blocking, footwork, understanding of college game speed and especially his physical stature. "Just everything," he said.

He came to college weighing 270 pounds and was about 275 in the Auburn game, still 20 pounds shy of his ideal weight as a 6-5 lineman. He is 285 now after gaining 15 pounds over the past few months, something many linemen find difficult to do during the season because they shed weight during practice.

To keep up with the constant race of calories in versus calories out, Matulis guzzled chocolate milk and protein shakes, and scarfed down peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before going to bed. With both offensive tackle spots up for grabs next season, Matulis has some time to reach 295 pounds and show what he can do with the extra girth.

Not that Elliott was displeased with how he handled this season, all things considered.

"I just think at the time he was thrown in the mix early in the Auburn game, he wasn't really refined, didn't really think he was going to have to play, and all of a sudden he did," Elliott said. "It's an up-and-down experience, as it is for every freshman. But with a guy that's potentially redshirting to playing to back on the bench, then playing again, it's a tough circumstance for him. But he's done well and I'm really proud of him."

Reach Darryl Slater at dslater@postandcourier.com.