December 20, 2010

Consistency At Last

T.J. Johnson was stunned.

"Yeah, that's something isn't it?" he responded last week. "I had no idea, man. I don't know what to think right now."

It is rather unbelievable. For the first time in three years, South Carolina will finish the season with the same offensive line coach that started the year. A guy like Johnson, who is a redshirt sophomore and has only been around for three years, has seen five line coaches come through what looked like a revolving door at the Floyd Football Building.

"That's right!" coach Steve Spurrier exclaimed last week. "That should help us. Should help us. When you get smashed around and maybe your quarterback and receivers are not really having a big game, you look bad."

Johnson redshirted in 2008 but came to USC to learn under John Hunt. Hunt was canned before the Outback Bowl, putting graduate assistant Cedric Williams in charge for a game.

Johnson played in 2009 under Eric Wolford, but Wolford left for a hometown gig at Youngstown State. USC's line was under the direction of another grad assistant, Andy Boyd, for the PapaJohns.com Bowl.

Shawn Elliott was hired from Appalachian State shortly after, and immediately made his mark. Despite limited depth and the fact that the Gamecocks had experience, but they had hardly produced, Elliott's fiery disposition produced a miracle.

USC mostly relied on six men, knowing the line may be kaput with even one small injury, and got through 13 games relatively unscathed. The toughness and passion so lacking in previous years was suddenly very apparent, and the linemen were rewarded when they helped produce USC's first 1,000-yard running back since 2000.

The familiar rumblings of the spinning coaching carousel again hit USC during the bowl break, but not on the line. Quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus was mentioned in a Philadelphia report on the Temple vacancy (Mangus said he'll talk about it if there's ever a situation to talk about), but Elliott is staying put.

The line couldn't be happier. Consistency has finally arrived to the Gamecocks' front, and Elliott is a huge reason why.

"To have coach Elliott, he's a very knowledgeable guy and he's a great motivator," Johnson said. "To have him for more than a year, I feel like he's going to help me reach my maximum potential as a player. That's something that I'm excited about."

Of course, not all is peachy in Columbia. The line stayed healthy through 13 games, but Spurrier announced last week that it may not be completely whole for the 14th. Garrett Chisolm, who started 12 of 13 games at left guard, injured his knee and may not be able to play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Chisolm was a vital part of the line and without him, the Gamecocks are down to five veteran players. Johnson will play center while Kyle Nunn and Hutch Eckerson play tackle, and Rokevious Watkins should return at right guard.

Taking Chisolm's place could be Terrence Campbell, or perhaps Jarriel King could play tackle and either Nunn or Eckerson could slide inside. King has the most experience, but putting in Campbell at left guard would avoid any drastic shakeups. Of course, King could play left guard as well, since all the linemen are versed in playing each others' positions.

It's for only one game, but it's against No. 23 Florida State, which leads the country in sacks. If Chisolm can't go, the replacement will have to be on the ball during every snap.

Not that Elliott would have it any other way. He'll be supplying his usual pre-game encouragement.

Which is what the line needed, and continues to enjoy.

"I'm glad coach Elliott is around," Johnson said. "I think he's done a great job coming in here. I'm excited to have him beyond to further everything. Coach Elliott's a great coach and I'm really looking forward to being with him for a couple more years."

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