Zandi brings leadership, experience to LT spot

South Carolina offensive lineman Mason Zandi (left) will move to left tackle in 2016 after playing primarily right tackle last season. (Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA)

He stepped in a season ago when South Carolina mainstay Brandon Shell moved from right tackle to left. Now Mason Zandi is following his former Gamecocks teammate once again.

It will be Zandi, all 6-8 and 303 pounds of him, who takes over South Carolina’s all-important left tackle position now that Shell has moved on to the NFL. The Goose Creek native was a fifth-round draft choice of the New York Jets after a USC career that saw him make a school-record 48 starts over four years.

Although only one of those seasons came at left tackle, Shell’s cleats remain substantial ones to fill. Zandi is the natural successor, particularly given that he emerged as a starter last season at right tackle after Shell was shifted to left. The Chapin native started the first 10 games before suffering a high ankle sprain against Florida, which kept him out against The Citadel and Clemson.

Now he’ll help anchor the left side of a South Carolina offensive line that has no shortage of experience, and he should be among the Gamecocks’ strengths. Zandi, left guard Zack Bailey of Summerville and center Alan Knott have 33 starts combined, while right guard Cory Helms (a Wake Forest transfer) and right tackle D.J. Park (a former special teamer) have a total of zero at USC.

“In the sense of continuity, we’re all real good friends outside of here,” Zandi said in the spring. “So we’ve got each other’s backs. The fourth quarter program that we went through in the offseason really made us have to be a team and have to lean on one another when things get tough.”

Among offensive linemen, only Knott, with 17 career starts, has more than Zandi’s 11. From a standpoint of both size and experience, there’s no player better suited to protect the blind side of Brandon McIlwain — or Perry Orth, or Jake Bentley — than Zandi, a vocal senior who came into his own last season.

So much of South Carolina’s fortunes this coming season will hinge on quarterback play, with the Gamecocks facing their biggest unknown in the most important position on the offensive side of the ball. That’s why it’s so key for all the players around that signal-caller spot to step up, whether they be receivers, David Williams at running back or Zandi manning the left tackle.

If there’s a natural leader in that group, it’s Zandi, and not just because he towers above everyone else. USC’s senior left tackle, who showed enough promise early in his career that he started one game as a redshirt freshman, will bring degrees of maturity and experience that may well be needed given that he’ll be surrounded by younger teammates at the skill position spots. It wasn’t always in Shell’s nature to be that older player who sets everyone straight. Zandi will slide into that role like it’s an old boat shoe.

This is a deep offensive line group, with very capable backups and a number of starters who can play more than one spot. Cohesiveness is bolstered by the return of unit coach Shawn Elliott, who retained much of his terminology even under a new head coach. Shell may be gone, but many familiar pieces remain, one of which is 303 pounds and should slide effortlessly into one of the most important positions on the field.