COLUMBIA, S.C. — Last year at this time, South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott was fretting over having to replace a four-year veteran at center, who had started a school-record 53 consecutive games, with a redshirt freshman.
Cody Waldrop, the redshirt freshman in question, was not only the best option, he was the only option.
Flash forward a year.
Elliott is gushing about the Gamecocks' depth, not only at center where there are four players taking snaps this spring, but across the board of an offensive line that figures to be not only the best in head coach Steve Spurrier's 10 seasons with the Gamecocks, but arguably the best in the Southeastern Conference next season.
"It’s a really good feeling to have," Elliott said of the Gamecocks' depth. "There are going to be some tough decisions because we’ve got a lot of really good players. But that’s what we get paid to do. But I told our players, if you all can play at a high level, you all are going to play.”
South Carolina returns four of five starters, including Waldrop, who more than held his own in his first season of college competition.
Not only that, but Clayton Stadnik, another redshirt freshman, got enough quality playing time at center last season to allow the Gamecocks the luxury of experimenting with Waldrop at right guard, the only starting spot up for grabs.
Junior Will Sport and redshirt freshman D.J. Park are also competing at right guard, along with redshirt freshman Na'Ty Rodgers.
However, Rodgers is currently under suspension after getting charged with underaged drinking over the weekend at a St. Patrick's Day celebration in the Five Points area of Columbia.
Elsewhere on the line, the Gamecocks have size and experience.
At left tackle, the Gamecocks start Corey Robinson, a 6'8", 348-pound senior, backed by sophomore Mason Zandi, a 6'9", 303-pound sophomore who gained valuable experience last season playing a backup role as a true freshman.
At left guard is A.J. Cann, a 6'4", 318-pound senior who may be the Gamecocks' most talented offensive lineman.
Cann considered leaving early for the NFL but decided to return.
"I talked with the other guys," he said, "and we felt like we had some unfinished business. This offensive line has the potential to be great. I want to be a part of it."
At right tackle, the Gamecocks have Brandon Shell, a 6'6", 334-pound junior, backed by Mike Matulis, an oft-injured junior with plenty of playing experience. Matulis is back, apparently fully healthy.
"We're really excited about having him back," Elliott said. "He gives you so many different options. He’s a tackle, he’s a guard. I want to throw him in there at right guard and see if he can play it. If he can, the sky's the limit for what we can do because we’v got players who can actually play that position. We can bump him out to tackle. He just gives you a lot of options.”
South Carolina's line will have to adjust to a new quarterback in Dylan Thompson, who is more of a dropback passer, taking over for Connor Shaw, who was more prone to scramble and run.
"There were times last year that they didn't know who was playing quarterback," Elliott said. "It really doesn’t matter to those guys. You play to people’s strengths, of course. So we’ll see what we have to do, but I don’t envision it being a very big change at all.”
And for the first time in Elliott's four seasons at South Carolina, he's not worried about having enough players.
“Building an offensive line is kind of like building a team from my perspective," Elliott said. "There are so many pieces and parts you’ve got to put into place. You can’t go out there without five offensive linemen. I knew it was going to be a process. You stay the course. Right now I feel pretty good. We’re continuing to build. Our numbers are up and we’re able to throw three solid lines out there.”
For a South Carolina team traditionally concerned about fielding five solid starters, that's got to be a good feeling.
All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated.