South Carolina left tackle Brandon Shell, of Goose Creek, ready for his debut Thursday at Vanderbilt
COLUMBIA — The video flickered across the screen in front of him, and Brandon Shell locked his eyes on it, trying to process everything he saw. This was Shell’s routine for much of the past week as he is preparing for his first career start in South Carolina’s season opener Thursday night at Vanderbilt.
Shell, a redshirt freshman left tackle from Goose Creek High School, spent the offensive line’s video sessions focusing on the Vanderbilt defensive ends he will face. One of them was Kyle Woestmann, whose jersey No. 92 Shell committed to memory, along with some of Woestmann’s tendencies.
What does Woestmann do when the opposing left tackle lines up toward the wide side of the field versus the short side? Does he lean in any particular direction in certain situations? These are the things Shell watched for as he sought any potential weaknesses in his opponent.
“I’m trying to watch everything so I can get a counter-attack to everything he does,” Shell said.
This is the usual pregame routine for all players, but this week is special for Shell because it is his first test. Of USC’s five first-stringers who have never started, Shell is the only freshman — redshirt or true. Though he played four snaps in last season’s opener against East Carolina, before a shoulder injury contributed to him redshirting, he is USC’s least experienced starter.
But he has considerable potential. He is ideally sized for an offensive tackle — 6-6 and 331 pounds. He was rated the No. 66 overall recruit by Rivals.com in 2011, making him USC’s second-highest rated recruit in the class behind only defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall recruit.
Clowney matched up with Shell in practice during the past year. He tested Shell’s pass-blocking skills, which Shell needed to develop, essentially from scratch, because Goose Creek primarily ran the ball. Since Shell protects quarterback Connor Shaw’s blind side, his pass blocking improvements were critical, lest Shaw get hit from behind.
“It’s been a real big deal, because in high school I never really pass blocked,” Shell said. “Now, coming to the college level and trying to learn how to pass block against bigger and faster guys, at first it was kind of a struggle, but I think I’m slowly working my way into becoming a good pass blocker.”
Starting as a freshman on the offensive line, particularly at left tackle, is one of the toughest tasks in college football. A.J. Cann was USC’s starting left guard last season as a redshirt freshman, so he knows Shell’s experience will be bumpy at times. He said he has told Shell: “Things happen. Don’t dwell on those. You’ve just got to continue to keep working.”
While Shell’s inexperience might limit him at times this season, his coaches know his combination of size and quick feet is rare.
“Very athletic for a guy that big,” said quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus. “He’s fun to watch run around. The best thing is, he’s still just a freshman. He’s got a great future. It’s his time to play. It’s time to grow up and go play. You can see him getting better on a daily basis.”
Shell said it feels like a long time since he truly played in a game, since the end of his senior season at Goose Creek, and he is curious to see how he fares at a higher level.
“I’m just ready to go on the field and go full speed and see how good I am against other people,” he said. “That’s what I’m really looking forward to.”
One upside for Shell to his essentially non-existent track record in college games: Vanderbilt defensive ends like Woestmann don’t have any video of him to study, though Shell thinks that might make Woestmann anticipate this game even more.
“He’s probably thinking, ‘Oh yeah, he’s a redshirt freshman,’” Shell said. “At the end of the day, I get to see how he plays and he doesn’t get to see how I play. It is kind of an advantage.”
The remnants of Hurricane Isaac likely won’t affect Thursday’s game. The weather forecast for Thursday night in Nashville, Tenn., calls for partly cloudy skies and a 20 percent chance of rain. Thursday’s daytime forecast: isolated thunderstorms and a 30 percent chance of rain.