COLUMBIA — On the offensive line at South Carolina, it’s Brandon Shell’s time.
A.J. Cann, a mainstay for the Gamecocks the past four years at guard, is off to the NFL. So is Corey Robinson, a rock for USC at left tackle. Of the offensive linemen returning, none are more seasoned than Shell, a rising senior who will carry a streak of 35 consecutive starts into the Sept. 3 opener against North Carolina.
Other players will capture more headlines, others will garner more attention, but few may prove as valuable to the Gamecocks’ fortunes as the Goose Creek native, particularly if he switches to left tackle as expected and becomes responsible for defending the blind side of quarterback Connor Mitch. USC’s first-year signal-caller will open the season with just six career pass attempts, and protection will prove vital if Mitch is to quickly become comfortable in his increased role.
That responsibility could well fall to the 6-6, 327-pound Shell, whom CBS rates as the No. 4 tackle prospect in the 2016 NFL draft. With Cann and Robinson gone, Shell and center Alan Knott become the stalwarts of an offensive line that could feature a first-year starter in tackle Mason Zandi, and a pair of players coming off injury-plagued seasons in guard Cody Waldrop and tackle Mike Matulis.
No wonder, then, coaches want to see Shell pick up the leadership mantle left behind by Cann, a third-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars. “Now he’s become the big guy in town, so to speak,” offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said prior to the Independence Bowl. “We want him to become more of a leader of our group, and see if he can develop into that, and see where it goes.”
Shell missed spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery to repair a right labrum that gave him trouble late last year. He’s expected to recover in time for this season, where he’ll have by far more career starts than not just any other offensive lineman, but also any other player on the squad.
It’s a lot to ask of any player to fill the leadership void left by Cann, as reliable an offensive lineman as USC has ever seen. But given his on-field credentials and the level of importance the left tackle position holds within the offense, Shell would seem the natural successor.
JULY 3: No. 10 WR Deebo Samuel
july 4: No. 9 LB Jordan Diggs
july 5: No. 8 DB Rico McWilliams
Monday: No. 7 OT Mason Zandi
Tuesday: No. 6 DE Dexter Wideman
Wednesday: No. 5 David Johnson
Thursday: No. 4 Brandon Shell
Friday: No. 3