Top 10 USC, No. 3: Zack Bailey makes the leap from true freshman to essential sophomore

South Carolina offensive lineman Zack Bailey of Summerville, who played center and guard his first two seasons at USC, is working at right tackle during spring practice. (File/USC Athletics)

COLUMBIA — He began as a true freshman who had only been playing organized football since the eighth grade. He finished as one of the most indispensable members of South Carolina’s offensive line.

Indeed, it was quite a transformation for Zack Bailey, the one-time Summerville High School star who needed only a few weeks to establish himself in the SEC. And the ceiling appears limitless for a 6-6, 326-pound offensive lineman who’s as gifted athletically as anyone else on the USC roster, and just might be the Gamecocks’ best pure football player.

We saw a glimpse of that last season, when Bailey appeared in all 12 games, starting five of them, three at a position at which he had never played before. A sprained ankle suffered by starting center Alan Knott at Georgia forced Bailey into action, before 92,000 at Sanford Stadium, no less, and he held down the position for three more weeks until Knott returned.

His coaches weren’t surprised. Bailey entered USC with the size and strength to immediate compete in the SEC, an area where many true freshmen — particularly offensive linemen — lag behind. And his Gamecocks coaches loved the skillfulness of an athletic guard who could dunk a basketball and also was a track and field standout in high school.

All this from a player who, before moving to Charleston, spent his time hanging out on the couch, eating potato chips and playing video games. His lone connection to football was watching the Seahawks play. But once moving to the Lowcountry he couldn’t escape the eye of the Summerville staff, and thus began a trajectory that’s only climbed higher and faster in the six years Bailey has played football.

Now? He’s an ironclad starter on USC’s offensive line, the lone Gamecocks player to make the SEC All-Freshman team after last season, and a potential candidate for more awards to come. South Carolina’s post-spring depth chart has the sophomore at left guard, though he’s capable of playing three positions on the offensive line, providing position coach Shawn Elliott with an enviable degree of flexibility.

“It’s time for me to step up,” Bailey said in the spring. “I played last year, and I need to bring that to this year. I need to come in, do my hardest, put the long hours in every day, study, try to become a better athlete and make sure in lock into my position and understand everything about the game.”

He appears well on his way to doing just that. Bailey’s development was a rare bright spot in last season’s 3-9 campaign, and his progress means there’s one less question mark on a 2016 squad full of them. He’s just the player South Carolina needs more of — a Mr. Football finalist who acclimated immediately to the college game, and now will almost certainly start for as long as he’s healthy.

In the days since he took the job, head coach Will Muschamp has been busy trying to upgrade a talent level that dropped off precipitously in the final seasons under Steve Spurrier. Muschamp’s versatile left guard is the kind of home-grown, blue-chip player who once helped the Gamecocks to three consecutive 11-win seasons, and will prove essential should they get back to that level once again.