COLUMBIA — Most days last fall, freshman Brandon Shell showed up to South Carolina football practice, took his place as a scout team offensive? tackle and looked across the line at one of the nation’s best defensive ends, ?senior Melvin Ingram.
Other days, Shell got to face an end closer to his age, but it was Jadeveon Clowney, the country’s top-rated ?recruit last year.
Between Ingram and Clowney, who led USC last season with 10 and eight sacks, Shell quickly learned how quick you have to play in order to be an offensive tackle in the Southeastern Conference. Shell, a Goose Creek High graduate, still smiles while recalling moments last year when Ingram or Clowney praised his work in their one-on-one matchups.
“It’s just a good feeling when you’ve got players like that telling you you’re doing a good job,” said Shell.
USC entered spring practices needing to replace starting left tackle Rokevious Watkins. Instead of moving over sophomore right tackles Mike Matulis or Cody Gibson, both of whom started at points last season, USC’s coaches decided to slot Shell, who redshirted last year, as the No. 1 ?left tackle — the man responsible for protecting quarterback Connor Shaw’s blind side.
Shell looks very much like a ?prototypical left tackle at 6-6 and 331 pounds. Behind Clowney, he was the second-highest rated recruit in ?USC’s class last year, No. 66 overall by Rivals.com, which most years would put you atop the class at South Carolina.
“We know he’s a heck of an athlete,” said offensive line coach Shawn Elliott. “Has huge upside. Now, he’s just got to develop into what we think he’s going to be. I have no idea about how good he could be at this point. He can really ?blossom into something ?special, I think.”
Shell said he struggled last fall with the speed of his pass blocking, particularly ?getting his hands up and ?keeping them inside the ?defensive end’s shoulder pads, and also “kick-setting” gracefully enough in his backwards steps off the line after the snap. The techniques were mostly foreign to him because Goose Creek rarely passed when he played there.
“I’d tend to, when I’d kick-set, my hands would go back instead of staying inside,” he said, demonstrating how his arms would spread out like wings rather than punching forward into the end’s shoulder pads. “You keep your hands inside to control the defensive end.”
Learning this on the fly against Ingram and Clowney was nerve-wracking at first, Shell said. But as they showed Shell, between practice snaps, what a defensive end might do in a certain situation, Shell began to benefit from the ?challenging experience.
Even when left tackle Kyle Nunn was sidelined with ?injuries after the first four games that kept him out until the bowl, the coaches decided ?to stick with their plan to ?redshirt Shell. He is glad they did, though he was initially disappointed about their ?decision. Redshirting allowed him to stand on the sideline during games and study how Nunn and then Watkins placed their hands and moved their feet while pass blocking.
“It really helped me a lot,” Shell said. “I tried to use stuff (during practice) that they used on the field.”
Nunn and Watkins also ?offered Shell pointers during practice about his pass set, even without him asking.
“I was just under their wing last year,” Shell said.
Now, Shell’s pass blocking is sharper and he feels stronger than he did before he underwent left shoulder surgery last spring, though he recovered in time to participate in 2011 ?preseason practices. He is using this spring to show the coaches they can rely on him at a critical position in the fall.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I’m just ready to play in the SEC.”
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