COLUMBIA — About two weeks ago, the old lineman on the other end of the phone had something to tell Brandon Shell. This had been an up-and-down first season for Shell, a highly regarded recruit from Goose Creek High who was trying to do one of the hardest things in college football — start as a freshman offensive tackle in the Southeastern Conference.
Shell redshirted last season, so he had some time to learn about this level. But his first game still proved jarring, and after that season opener at Vanderbilt, he was demoted from South Carolina’s starting left tackle to backup right tackle. He spent the second, third and fourth games as a reserve.
About a month has passed since he returned to the starting lineup, Sept. 29 at Kentucky. On Saturday afternoon against Tennessee, he will start his fifth consecutive game, all at right tackle, a position he believes suits him better than left tackle.
“I grew up playing right tackle,” he said. “I never played left tackle until I got here. I’m just kind of familiar and comfortable with the right side.”
He also grew up — and grow he did, to his current 6-6 and 331 pounds — with the offensive tackle position in his bloodlines.
His great uncle, Art Shell, is a Charleston native who played tackle for the Raiders from1968-82 and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Art is 65 now, living in Georgia, and last coached in 2006. He speaks with Brandon every 2-3 weeks. He watches USC’s games on television and told Brandon that when they both have free time after the season, they will sit down and he will offer the young man some pointers.
Over the phone a couple weeks ago, Art told Brandon one particularly important thing he noticed about Brandon’s pass blocking, an area of Brandon’s game that wasn’t sharp when he arrived at USC, because Goose Creek primarily ran the ball.
“He was just saying that sometimes I’m top heavy,” Brandon said. “That’s the main thing he was telling me about.”
Yes, sometimes he does lean in his pass blocking, which can result in a loss of balance. But Shell has made significant strides since the Vanderbilt game. USC needs him because Mike Matulis, who can play both tackle spots, has nursed a shoulder injury since before Kentucky.
“(Shell) makes the typical mistakes that a young freshman would make,” said offensive line coach Shawn Elliott. “But he’s been a pretty solid right tackle.”
Shell’s play will be important against Tennessee, as the Gamecocks try to revive their rushing offense. Tailback Marcus Lattimore, their best offensive player, has just 16 carries for 48 yards in the past two games combined, losses at LSU and Florida. Those teams’ rushing defenses rank No. 9 and 10 nationally. Tennessee’s ranks No. 91.
“We need Marcus to run the ball more, as we all know,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier. “Our formula for winning has not occurred over the last two weeks. There weren’t any gaping holes (at Florida). Let’s put it that way.”
The line has struggled at times this year, regardless of whether Shell started. In other games, most notably the Oct. 6 win over Georgia, the line shined. Similarly, Shell has dealt with being pulled from the starting lineup, only to push himself and return.
“The way I just took (being demoted) is we just needed the best on the field, and at that time, I wasn’t the best person to put on the field,” he said. “Me personally, I really didn’t have a problem with it. I didn’t complain about it. I didn’t go stomping around. I just took it in. I just kept telling myself I’ve got to step it up.”
At left tackle, he sometimes struggled with having to take the opposite steps in pass blocking that he took at right tackle. The positions often mirror each other, but it’s not that simple. Shell was so used to playing right tackle that he would inadvertently used right side moves on the left side.
His comfort returned when he moved back to the right side. His knowledge increased as he played more. And this offseason, he will get insight from one of best offensive tackles ever. Anybody could have figured his first year would be a challenge. From here, it ought to get easier.
“I’m getting plays down pat more than I did at the beginning of the season,” he said. “I’m reading some defensive linemen when the play is called. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t know, but now I actually know what to do on all the plays, basically.”
NOTE: USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles (shoulder sprain) will miss his second consecutive game and that J.T. Surratt likely will start for him against Tennessee.