COLUMBIA — Zack Bailey did many things over a storied career at Summerville High School, but snapping the ball wasn’t one of them. Yet that’s just what the true freshman offensive lineman is being asked to do now at South Carolina.
“He punted in high school, but he did not do any snapping,” said USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott. “But he comes out here every day and he practices, and it’s just (a matter of) getting comfortable. He’s got good ball skills — he can play basketball, he can throw a football, he can do a lot of different things with it. That’s what makes him really perfect at the position. If he has to go in there, I feel really confident he’ll go in there and do well.”
The Gamecocks are in need of quality depth at the center position, particularly after last weekend when backup Cody Waldrop went down in practice with a broken bone above the ankle. Bailey, normally a guard, had been working some at third-team center — and now finds himself as the backup to starter Alan Knott.
The only other center on the Gamecocks’ roster is junior Clayton Stadnik, who had been converted to a tight end during spring practice, and is undersized compared to the 6-6, 320-pound Bailey, the third-highest rated member of USC’s 2015 recruiting class according to ESPN’s rankings.
Knott, a sophomore, emerged as USC’s top center last season, when he made eight starts. Bailey made his college debut in last week’s 17-13 victory over North Carolina, playing on field goal and extra point teams. Since Waldrop’s injury, he’s been preparing to take on additional responsibilities at center, beginning with Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. home opener against Kentucky (1-0).
“Right now, he’s practicing as if he’s going into the game,” Elliott said.
Although Stadnik has 12 career starts at center at USC (1-0), maintaining enough weight to play the position has always been a challenge — particularly after undergoing surgery earlier this year to have his tonsils removed, which left him unable to eat at his normal pace. As a result his weight plummeted from 285 to 235, prompting coaches to convert him into a blocking tight end during spring practice.
“I’ve always been undersized,” Stadnik, from Greensboro, N.C., said earlier this year. “... I ate like five meals a day. Even my senior year (in high school) I was light, like 255, 260. So I’ve always been undersized my whole life. Even when I got to college, I really had to work. Eating meals was like a second job for me. So it was very hard for me to keep the weight on.”
Stadnik is listed as 240 pounds — and still as a tight end — on USC’s official roster. Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier called him “a light center.” Elliott said Stadnik is back working some with the centers, but called him “an emergency-type situation player for us right now.”
Bailey, also the backup to senior Mike Matulis at left guard, is one of four true freshman offensive linemen at South Carolina, three of whom — along with tackles Christian Pellage and Blake Camper — debuted against the Tar Heels. While not approved by USC to speak to the media this week, Bailey said in the preseason he was having little difficulty in picking up the Gamecocks’ system.
“I don’t think any of us have felt that we’re behind by any means,” he said. “If you mess up on a play, you mess up on a play. You get back in position and try to make the next one even better.”
So far, so good for the former Summerville star, who started as a defensive end before being converted to offensive lineman his sophomore year in high school, and also threw discus and shot in track. To Elliott, that kind of versatility made Bailey the perfect candidate to bolster the center position at USC.
“Zack can play anything,” said the Gamecocks’ offensive line coach. “He has great ball skills. He can play tackle, he can play guard, he can play tight end. He can do about anything. If you put him over there on the D-line, he’d be one of our best defensive linemen. He’s just a very good athlete. He understands the game of football.”