Injury-riddled Gamecocks hobble into final week of spring practice

Goose Creek native Brandon Shell is among 15 USC players missing all or part of spring practice due to injuries or offseason surgery. (Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina)

COLUMBIA — These days, the dominant color at South Carolina spring football practice isn’t garnet, white, or black — it’s yellow.

That’s the hue worn by players who are being held out of action due to injuries, medical procedures or precautionary reasons, a list which grows a little longer every day. Tuesday there were 15 Gamecocks in yellow, six of them offensive linemen, which has led to some players receiving an extended number of first-team repetitions for the first time in their college careers.

“We’ve seen a lot from a lot of these players who haven’t played much at all, especially on offense,” USC head coach Steve Spurrier said after Tuesday’s practice. “Defense has a lot of the players, especially linebackers, who are going to play next year, and maybe D-line, and maybe even secondary. But still, we have a lot of players coming in this summer, and we’ve got a lot of players hurt. So this is not our team by any means.”

On the offensive line alone, USC is making do without three players projected to start. Right tackle and Goose Creek native Brandon Shell is missing the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery following last season, left guard Cody Waldrop has an undisclosed injury, and left tackle Mason Zandi has been out since last week with a hamstring. In addition, tackle Mike Matulis has been sitting out after knee surgery, guard Malik Young is nursing an ankle, and blocking tight end Clayton Stadnik has a sprained MCL ligament.

No wonder, then, the Gamecocks defense has been getting the better of the offense as of late, both in two-minute drills during practices last week, and in the most recent scrimmage Saturday. While USC’s defense figures to be improved from the unit which finished 13th in the SEC last season, it can be difficult to judge just how much progress they’re making late in spring practice going up against an undermanned offensive line.

“It’s definitely hard to gauge that, because on Saturdays during the season, we’re not going to be playing against our offense,” said cornerback Al Harris Jr. “We’re going to be going against different teams. So we’re just trying to get better at the fundamentals.”

The defense hasn’t been immune, either. End Cedrick Cooper continues to hobble around on crutches with a high ankle sprain, and end Gerald Dixon is still out with a leg contusion. Two new players, linebacker Sherrod Pittman and cornerback Darin Smalls of Summerville, continue to rehab knee injuries suffered while in high school. The latest to be clad in yellow is tackle Phillip Dukes, whom defensive line coach Deke Adams said hurt his back in Saturday’s scrimmage, and was being held out Tuesday as a precaution.

“They’ve had injuries, we’ve had injuries, so it’s kind of mix and match the whole spring as far as where we’re putting guys,” Adams said, referring to the offense and defense. He’s looking forward to preseason camp in late summer, when USC’s full 32-man signing class is slated to be on campus. “I’m excited about getting some of these other guys in here to kind of cut into some of the reps, so we can be fresh when we get on the field with all the guys,” he added.

Not everyone is among the walking wounded. Defensive end Marquavius Lewis, a former junior college star who figures to start in the fall, continues to earn rave reviews among coaches. “I think he’s going to be a really good player for us. We know he is. He’s got all the tools to do it,” Adams said. And USC’s secondary, linebacker corps, and offensive skill positions have remained largely injury-free.

“I know we’ve got a bunch of guys down right now,” said linebackers coach Kirk Botkin, “but we’re going out there and trying to coach our best with the guys we’ve got.”

And the injures haven’t kept South Carolina from accomplishing what it hoped to over spring practice, including getting new No. 1 quarterback Connor Mitch snaps with the first unit and implementing the 4-3 scheme brought in by new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke.

“We’ve got quite a bit done,” Spurrier said, “so I think it was very productive.”

NOTES

— The final week of spring practice includes a reunion of players who competed during Spurrier’s decade at USC. Spurrier said around 100 players are slated to attend a dinner Friday night, and his past players will also be recognized at the spring game, which begins at noon Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.

— Spurrier said he plans to keep the spring game “pretty simple.” There will be no blitzing, and the coverages will be basic man-to-man. “Let the guys go play,” he added. The clock will be stopped as in a normal game during the first half, but run continuously through the second.

— The spring game will also include a celebrity receiver off the bench, added Spurrier, who declined to divulge exactly who. “Unknown at this time,” he said. “It could be a big celebrity that’s going to attempt to catch off the bench. Big-time celebrity.” USC women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley ran out from the bench area and caught a 30-yard touchdown pass in last season’s game.