South Carolina and Vandy seek O-line consistency

South Carolina’s offensive line is better than the unit that seemed to fall apart last season – when it comes to rushing yards

Judge the unit by sacks allowed, and the Gamecocks are still struggling.

Injuries, poor play and a three-time starter who may have quit the team have left No. 23 South Carolina shifting around a line that has allowed a Southeastern Conference worst 20 sacks, but is also making holes for runners who are averaging 45 yards more a game than last year.

“As you saw last game, I played at right guard a little bit. S.C. State game, I was left guard. I’m ready to play any position as needed for the team,” said senior Lemuel Jeanpierre.

The Gamecocks take on Vanderbilt this weekend, and Commodores coach Bobby Johnson is also trying to nurse an offensive line with some problems. Left tackle Thomas Welch may miss Saturday’s game with a sprained ankle, a blow for an offense that has allowed 17 sacks and is 11th in the SEC gaining 330 yards a game.

“The main thing is getting healthy people in there and teaching them the right technique,” Johnson said. “Whoever is in there, we will ask them to battle as hard as they can and that’s really all we can do.”

Before South Carolina started this season, coach Steve Spurrier revamped almost his entire offensive coaching staff, keeping only his son and receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. The Gamecocks allowed 39 sacks in 2008, and finished 11th in the SEC in sacks allowed in the past two years. New offensive line coach Eric Wolford promised competition among linemen, and the Gamecocks’ participation chart shows he meant what he said.

Only one player, freshman T.J. Johnson, has started every game on the offensive line. Eight different players have started at least once. Three-time starter Heath Batchelor didn’t travel to the Alabama game, with some media reports suggesting he had left the team. Spurrier hasn’t determined what the junior’s role will be the rest of the season.

“We all care about Heath. We all wish him the best. But we’ve got to move on,” Jeanpierre said.

Along with the revamped running game, South Carolina is also depending on short, controlled passes. Stephen Garcia has thrown more passes than any SEC quarterback, averaging a fairly low 6.6 yards per attempt.

And when he can’t find someone, Garcia often starts to scramble.

“We don’t finish our blocks sometimes,” Jeanpierre said. “As offensive linemen, it’s a pretty difficult position because you’re sitting there blocking somebody, but you don’t know what’s going on behind you. We think Garcia is right behind us, we look to our left just like everyone else and he is scrambling.”

Spurrier said the offensive line has to reduce the number of sacks it allows, but insists he isn’t bashing the unit, saying they held tough in a 20-6 loss to now top-ranked Alabama.

“We played against the No. 1 or No. 2 defense in the nation last week,” Spurrier said. “We got smashed pretty good up front, although our pass protection was generally pretty good last game.”