By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth
When Donnel Stanley wasn't in the weight room this summer, working on his strength and agility, he was hanging out at the house shared by teammates Cory Helms, Alan Knott and Malik Young.
"They basically turned their house into the offensive lineman house, and they had everybody there any time we wanted," Stanley said.
Zack Bailey sometimes took two or three teammates home with him on the weekends.
"We'd go home and hang out with them and meet their parents," Bailey said.
To Stanley and Bailey, their offensive line mates are just part of the family. Part of a brotherhood charged with forming a bond that could lead to success on the battlefield.
When they weren't taking road trips together or hanging out at the Helms-Knott-Young house, the Gamecock offensive linemen were lounging by the pool, going out to eat or just bonding.
"We did a lot of stuff you just don't see," Stanley said. "A lot stuff outside of football just to bring us together as a unit."
When new offensive line coach Eric Wolford joined the Gamecock coaching staff during the offseason, one of his missions was to create a more cohesive unit and develop more camaraderie among his big men. His troops took it to heart.
"For us to trust in each other, we had to get to know each other the best we could," Staley said. "It just makes you want to do it for your brother."
"We are super close," Bailey said. "We love each other. It's a brotherhood. I'd do anything to help one of them."
The offensive line is perhaps the most crucial element of what is expected to be a high-powered offense this season. For quarterback Jake Bentley and his bevy of talented receivers and running backs to produce, the offensive line must gel and play better than last season. It must reduce the 41 sacks it allowed and create the space for the backs and receivers to operate.
It is an experienced group that has more depth than last season and plenty of competition during training camp.
Knott, who is on the Rimington Watch List for the nation's best centers, returns in the middle while Helms, another senior, is back at right guard. Bailey, a junior who has played all three positions in his first two seasons, has moved from guard to right tackle.
Young, a junior, has moved from right tackle to the left side, where he has been competing with junior college transfer Dennis Daley. Stanley, who missed almost all of last season with an ankle injury, is back at left guard. Senior D.J. Park, junior Blake Camper and redshirt freshman Sadarius Hutcherson provide depth. Most of the unit has been working at multiple positions to create more depth and versatility.
"We've got some good competition there," head coach Will Muschamp said. "We're going to find the best combination of five guys."
"Honestly, I don't think anybody's safe," Bailey said.
After the team's first scrimmage, Wolford challenged Bailey and Dailey to be more consistent. He praised Young, who he said will likely start at left tackle, but quickly added …
"We just have to keep pushing him, too. All of these guys, you have to keep pushing them so nobody feels like they are grandfathered in or in entitled to any position."
Most of the offensive linemen stayed on campus this summer, working with Strength and Conditioning Coach Jeff Dillman on getting stronger and more agile.
"That was a concern, just our overall athletic ability," Wolford said. "When you look at the matchup we have week in and week out, we had to get more athletic and Coach Dillman and our players stayed here in May and made that commitment. … We are moving around a lot better."
Knott, in particular, says he benefitted from the offseason conditioning. The senior center is down to 290 pounds after working with Director of Nutrition Kristin Coggin on getting rid of what he calls "bad weight."
"I think I'm in a way better place than I was last year," he said. "Way more muscle than just being a fat guy. … I'm stronger than I've felt all four years I've been here."
While there is competition along most of the line, the two players Muschamp is not worried about are Knott and Helms, the two seniors in the middle.
"Those are two tough dudes and they are going to fight for the Gamecocks and they are going to play well for us this year," he said. "I'm glad both those guys are in South Carolina uniforms."
"Alan and Cory have been tremendous," Wolford said. "There is no question they are the leaders of our group. They are hard-working guys, they push through, they hold each other accountable and they hold the rest of the guys in the group accountable."
Knott and Helms have combined to start 42 games for South Carolina over the past three seasons. Their experience is so valuable that Wolford often bounces ideas off them before making changes on the line.
"I want to know how their brain sees it. 'How does this hit your brain?'" Wolford said. "I will ask them because I trust them. They have game experience and they are the ones playing."
Wolford was the offensive line coach at South Carolina under Steve Spurrier in 2009 before leaving to become the head coach at Youngstown State. He has spent the past two seasons as the assistant offensive line coach with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.
His players say he has brought an NFL approach to the Gamecock line.
"He brings a lot of attention to detail, the small things, the little technique things that you don't notice," Bailey said. "Little things like that make a huge difference."
One of Wolford's tricks is making his linemen wear velcro handcuffs to keep their hands inside and close to their chest during pass protection.
"We go over the smallest things," Knott said. "I think it makes us become way more technical as a group. Just small, little tricks that he has gained through his experience in the NFL to just get guys to think about it more."
Muschamp said Wolford's experience as a college head coach and in the NFL has helped improve the unit.
"There is no recruiting (in the NFL) so all you do is study football and find answers for exotic pressures on third down," he said. "I think he is offering a lot of experience to our offensive staff and to our coaching staff."
"Now I think we are at a situation where those guys up front, when we start talking about a protection or run, they can visualize what we are talking about and apply it to a three-down defense, four-down defense," Offensive Coordinator Kurt Roper said. "I feel good about those guys."
So does Bentley, who has been working closely with his linemen to learn protections and offensive adjustments.
"Coach Wolford is doing a great job as far as their communication and how they are working together," Bentley said. "Seeing blitzes before they happen and different tips from the defense they can get, they are seeing that a lot faster."
The improvements over last season — the strength, agility, closeness and attention to detail — have given the offensive line more confidence.
"I think we can run toe to toe with anybody, any defense in the country," Knott said. "We have grown tremendously from last year."
"I think the sky's the limit for us," Stanley said. "The sky's the limit for our offense and pretty much our whole football team."