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July 17, 2006The following is the fourth in a series of position previews.
The performance of last season's senior-dominated offensive line was so disappointing to Steve Spurrier that he believes this year's unit, though far less experienced, will outperform it.
His faith was justified by the respectable performance of the first-team offensive line in spring drills.
Na'Shan Goddard, Jabari Levey and Freddy Saint-Preux may be gone but, in Spurrier's view, so is the subpar effort and lackadaisical outings, particularly from the latter pair.
"I think we're going to be okay on the offensive line, I really do," Spurrier said. "We'll be just as good as last year, maybe better."
Spurrier wasn't hesitant this spring about throwing a few zingers toward the aforementioned seniors and appeared pleased for the opportunity to build a line more to his liking.
While the strength of last season's offensive line was supposed to be the tackles (Levey and Goddard), the opposite is true this year. The stabilizing force this year will be fifth-year senior center Chris White (6-3, 316 pounds) from Chester, S.C.
White started all 12 games last season, one of only four South Carolina players to do so in 2005. With 28 career starts, he will also be, by far, the most experienced lineman.
Though White was steady last season, Spurrier expects him to play better.
Canada's Gurminder Thind (6-4, 286 pounds) was barely a blip on the radar screen last season. But over the course of the 15 workouts during spring practice, he developed into USC's best pass blocker and all but nailed down the all-important left tackle spot.
Thind, a redshirt sophomore from Mississauga, Ont., has quickly became a fan favorite for his inspired and physical style of play. He possesses the strength, agility and quickness to become an All-SEC quality left tackle before his career is concluded.
"Gurminder did some good things this spring," Spurrier said. "He did a good job holding his own in there. We just ask them not to whiff. Hold your own. You don't need to knock them five yards backwards."
Walk-on Thomas Coleman from Johnston, S.C., will likely be rewarded for his contributions last season with a scholarship from Spurrier before the start of classes in late August. He is penciled in as the starter at left guard.
Coleman started four games last season at three different positions. His first career start came at right tackle against Alabama.
While Thind and Coleman appear established on the left side, the right side of the line is less settled.
The inconsistent and injury-plagued James Thompson (6-3, 323) and Jamon Meredith (6-4, 290 pounds), who started four games last season, are the front runners to land the starting jobs at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
Thompson was highly regarded when he signed with USC out of Sumter High School in 2004. But his progress has been slowed by nagging injuries the first two years of his career.
If Thompson can fulfill the high expectations for him coming out of high school, the offensive line could become a dominating force.
"(Thompson) has done a little bit better," Spurrier said. "He needs a good off-season of getting quicker and lighter on his feet and learning his assignments a little bit better. James has improved quite a bit."
Meredith will try to build on several encouraging performances in the second half of last season. He made four starts overall last season, taking over the right tackle spot for good before the Florida game.
"I'm just trying to solidify my spot at right tackle and help provide good protection for Blake Mitchell," Meredith said. "We know that if we give Blake a little bit of time, he can complete passes and make plays, so that is the biggest goal. If that happens and we get things going, the wins will come and post-season honors and awards will follow."
Meredith petitioned the NCAA this spring to regain an additional year of eligibility based on the fact he played just a few snaps toward the end of USC's 2004 season opening win at Vanderbilt but did not see any action the rest of the season.
However, Meredith is currently listed as a junior on USC's pre-season roster.
William Brown (6-4, 287) did not participate in spring practice because he was recovering from back surgery. He started the first four games in 2005 and did a respectable job before suffering a back strain during pre-game warm-ups at Auburn and missed the rest of the season.
Brown has recovered from his setback and will likely become USC's top reserve along the offensive line. He will likely put up a tough battle for the starting right guard spot and could easily unseat Thompson.
Redshirt sophomores Jeremy Burgess (6-4, 286) and Justin Sorensen (6-7, 309) will provide depth. Burgess was listed as the backup center behind White at the start of spring practice.
If any of the veterans falter, there is a large and talented group of incoming freshmen ready to pounce. With the scholarship numbers running on fumes, you can be sure two or three first-year players will see substantial action this season.
The best bets to play as true freshmen include Kevin Young (6-5, 340), Hutch Eckerson (6-6, 295) and Heath Batchelor (6-6, 290).
All three players certainly possess the physical size you need to compete immediately with SEC defensive linemen.
"The possibilities of playing this season are good because right now they need a right guard and that's where they want me to play," Young said. "I'm going to try as hard as I can to get the job done and get the position. I definitely want to play as a freshman."
Local product Garrett Anderson (6-5, 285) is another possibility but since he didn't turn 18 until July 13, the Dutch Fork High graduate may require additional time to physically mature.
"I'm not really sure which position I'm going to play," Anderson said. "There's been some talk of me playing center. They might also put me at tackle or guard. They're going to have two or three (of the eight OL signees) go in there and play this year. The rest are going to redshirt."
The biggest puzzle heading into the start of fall camp is the academic status of junior college transfer Clarence Bailey, who signed with USC last December. Bailey's entrance into USC has incurred numerous delays and may never happen. He is not currently listed on USC's official roster.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Gurminder Thind (LT), Thomas Coleman (LG), Chris White (C), James Thompson (RG), Jamon Meredith (RT).
RESERVES: William Brown, Jeremy Burgess, Justin Sorensen, Seth Edwards, Hardee Sanders, Seaver Brown, Kevin Young, Hutch Eckerson.
PROJECTED REDSHIRTS: Garrett Anderson, Pierre Andrews, Seaver Brown, Ryan Broadhead.
Other in-depth position previews:
• Cook(ing) up something tasty at tight end
• Defensive line trying to find weight balance
• Three new starters means fresh start for linebackers
• Rice looking to top spectacular freshman season
• Gamecock backfield primed for success
• Pressure's on Bennett to lead youthful secondary
• Battle to become Mitchell's backup will be fierce
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