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September 8, 2011

Gridiron Extra: Elliott eyes O-line growth



Going into last week's season-opener against East Carolina, South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott planned to play his experienced starting five as much as possible.

And that's exactly how it worked out.

The starting unit of Kyle Nunn, A.J. Cann, T.J. Johnson, Terrence Campbell and Rokevious Watkins were fixtures for the first 60 offensive snaps. Once the victory was secure, the quintet of Mike Matulis, Kyle Harris, Travis Ford, Ronald Patrick and Brandon Shell (three true freshmen, a sophomore and a walk-on sophomore) were on the field for the final five snaps.

"We played 65 snaps, so that's not a whole lot of reps," Elliott said on Wednesday. "We get 120 (reps) out here in the course of a practice."

The best-case scenario, of course, would be to redshirt the true freshmen, Elliott maintained, but the lack of experienced depth may prevent that from happening. The cutoff for a medical redshirt is the fourth game of the season.

"I wish we had been able to get some of the younger guys in a lot earlier," Elliott said. "(East Carolina's) long drive (19 plays, 72 yards, 7:04) in the fourth quarter limited us to putting them in there for a few plays. Right now, they're scheduled to play, so we'll see."

His overall assessment of how the offensive line played? Lukewarm. He said Cann graded out at 76 for his first college start and that was a typical first-game mark for the line.

"It wasn't a great game, but we played well enough to win the game," Elliott said. "It was an average performance by us all. We had a couple of quarterback pressures from A.J. Cann, but I don't think we had any missed assignments from the guys. It was an average night. I think we can play with better effort. We need to get the ball rolling up front early on and keep pounding them. All in all, at times I was pleased and at times I wasn't pleased. You're never satisfied."

Elliott has never coached a game at Sanford Stadium, but he recognizes that the USC line must kick the intensity and performance level up a notch if they want to compete successfully against Georgia. Facing a Conference USA opponent on a neutral field is one thing, but squaring off with a SEC East divisional rival on the road in front of 90,000 hostile fans is another.

Elliott's message to his unit this week has been clear and direct - the mediocre level at which it played against ECU won't work against Georgia. For example, the USC line was penalized for a couple of false-start penalties.

"We have to play much better than we did last week," Elliott said. "If we play assignment football, we're going to be OK. The crowd is going to be into it, the energy and excitement. But I think that fuels our guys. If you can go anywhere in the country, you look forward to playing big ballgames in big venues, just like there. Playing down in Georgia, I think we're going to rise to the occasion and do our best to come out of there with a victory. I don't have any concerns, I just want us to go out there and play smart and focus on what we have to do."

Elliott's chief goal? Mistake-free football for 60 minutes.

"We had a couple of offside penalties that were just foolish," he said. "We have to eliminate those. We have to be mistake-free on Saturday. That's the only way we're going to have a chance in this football game."

Georgia's starting defensive front in the 3-4 features redshirt sophomore nose tackle Kwame Geathers (6-foot-6, 350 pounds), the latest major college player from the Geathers clan in Georgetown. He is backed up by junior-college transfer Jonathan Jenkins (6-3, 351). Elliott said USC's offensive linemen must also keep an eye on talented outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.

"They have a great D-line," Elliott said. "Geathers is 6-6, 350 at the nose guard. That's a guy we haven't seen before. Jarvis Jones can come off the edge. He's a physical, powerful rusher. He can change the complexion of a game in a hiccup. He is one of the best athletes we will see. So we have to be on our toes. Athletically, they are a totally different team (than East Carolina)."

Geathers, though, has not practiced with Georgia's No. 1 defense this week because of a neck sprain/shoulder stinger suffered in the opening game loss to Boise State. Coach Mark Richt said on Wednesday that he still believes Geathers will be ready to play on Saturday, multiple media outlets in Georgia reported.

"Kwame is from South Carolina and he wants to play in this ballgame," Richt said in a report on UGASports.com. "I don't think you could keep him out of this one. We're just trying to be wise. We don't want to light him up again and set him back."

Even though both East Carolina and Georgia employ the 3-4 as their base defensive alignment, Elliott insisted "they're nothing alike."

Redshirt freshman Cody Gibson has lightly practiced the last two days and could be given clearance by team doctors to go full-speed by next week, Elliott said. Gibson dislocated his right kneecap in early August and hadn't practiced since this week. At the time, Gibson was the backup at right tackle to Watkins, but has since been supplanted by Shell.

"(Gibson) just came back yesterday for a few plays and we got him in a little more (Wednesday)," Elliott said. "We're hoping he can practice tomorrow. He just has to get back in the swing of things."

Even though the first five series against East Carolina ended with two fumbles and two punts, Elliott said he didn't change anything and stayed patient.

"We pretty much stuck with the exact same thing," Elliott said. "Nobody panicked. Nobody did anything different. We didn't say we have to spread out and throw the ball. We kind of just crept back in it, let our defense do exactly what they do, stop them and give us the opportunity to get the ball. Nobody panicked. We didn't change one thing. And that was one of the pleasing things about what we did last week."

ELLINGTON THE THROWER?: Bruce Ellington competed with Stephen Garcia in target practice following Wednesday's workout as they each tried to throw a football into a trash can about 30 to 40 yards downfield. Ellington was the first to do it. As Spurrier's confidence in Ellington continues to grow, the playbook for the sophomore from Moncks Corner will expand. Ellington directed the Wildcat offense for several plays in the win over ECU and had two rushes for 18 yards. The next step? Attempting a pass.

"I'm ready to throw it. Coach said he's going to use me a little bit in the Wildcat to throw the ball so I'm ready for it," Ellington said Wednesday, four days after he made his USC debut on the gridiron and 20 months after he last played football for Berkeley High School. "First game back, I think I did pretty well. The game was pretty fast."

Ellington, the leading scorer on the USC basketball team last season, returned two kickoffs for a total of 55 yards (longest was 35 yards) and had another long return called back by a questionable block-in-the-back penalty on Quin Smith.

"There were some big guys out there and they were coming full-speed, so I have to go out there and play tough," Ellington said. "When the ball was coming down, I was a little nervous. But once I got it, I was like, 'Let's go' and I just ran the ball."

THE HAT TRICK: South Carolina scored an offensive, defensive and special teams touchdown against East Carolina. The last time that happened? Oct. 7, 1995, in a 77-14 trouncing of Kent State at Williams-Brice Stadium. USC scored nine offensive touchdowns (Steve Taneyhill had four TD passes), one on defense (Ben Washington with a 15-yard fumble return) and one on special teams (Benji Young had a 17-yard return following a blocked punt).

However, that lopsided win on Homecoming is not the last time USC scored in all three phases in a single game. On Nov. 15, 2003, USC scored offensive and defensive touchdowns and recorded a safety on special teams against Florida. However, USC lost the game, 24-22, in large part due to another special teams play - USC botched a fake punt to give Florida great field position.

GARCIA PREPARING FOR BULLDOGS: The last two seasons have seen completely different games between South Carolina and Georgia. Two years ago, the rivals uncharacteristically engaged in a Wild West shootout that went down to the final play. A year ago, it was The Marcus Lattimore Show in USC's 17-6 victory. The common denominator in both those games? Garcia was the USC quarterback.

"I don't think it's going to be as high-scoring as it was two years ago", Garcia said on Tuesday. "Last year, we just kept feeding Marcus the ball and he just kept breaking tackle after tackle. Our defense played outstanding and got a big turnover in the red zone. We made the plays when we needed them. Hopefully, this year we can play better as an offensive unit."

Garcia will face a 3-4 defense for the second straight week, but clearly Georgia has better athletes and runs a different variation of the alignment.

"Obviously, they have some great athletes at Georgia," Garcia said. "Not to take anything away from East Carolina, but this is a SEC opponent. Georgia is in their second year of running (the 3-4) while East Carolina was in their first year. So Georgia has a year under their belt. We have to watch a lot of film to get ready for what they're going to throw at us."

Even though Garcia didn't start the ECU game because Spurrier contended that Connor Shaw had outplayed the fifth-year senior during preseason camp, the support among his teammates continues to be unwavering.

"We were happy when Garcia got into the game. We all look up to him," Jason Barnes said Wednesday. "He's a brother to us, and we look to him to lead the team so we were happy when he was in the game."

MISCELLANEOUS:

-- Rivals.com ranked Lattimore as the No. 1 running back in the nation in its weekly College Football Power Rankings, which measure the nation's top performers at each position. Alshon Jeffery is No. 4 in the receiver rankings.

-- As expected, Richt was asked on the SEC coaches' teleconference on Wednesday if Saturday's game was a "must-win" for himself and the Bulldogs. He tersely answered, "A must-win? I wouldn't say that. But sure, it's a very important game for all of us. It's the first conference game, it's a key for the division race, but it's not a must-win, not for the conference race or any other way that I know of. It's important, no doubt about that. We look at all our games as must-win games. How you want to spin that, you can spin it. That's what you do, so do with it what you want."

-- ESPN SEC blogger Chris Low rated Lattimore as the SEC's top contender for the Heisman Trophy after Week 1:. "If the Gamecocks keep winning and Lattimore keeps churning out 100-yard rushing performances, he's got a real chance. Nationally, he's quickly becoming a household name and rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns in the opener."

-- Low ranks the Gamecocks No. 5 in this week's SEC Power Rankings behind LSU, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State. "The Gamecocks (1-0) dropped a spot even though they ended up winning going away in a 56-37 victory over East Carolina. The thing that's difficult to ignore is South Carolina's sloppy start and the fact that the Gamecocks turned the ball over four times. They fell behind 17-0, and to their credit, had more than enough resolve and firepower to fight back. It's obvious this team responds to senior quarterback Stephen Garcia, too. When he entered the huddle, the game changed."

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