Steve Spurrier had a fallback plan last season when South Carolina's offensive line stumbled out of the blocks: the Gamecocks' coach stuck the mobile Syvelle Newton at quarterback and let him run around until the line improved.
Spurrier has no such luxury this season.
"We don't have those scrambling quarterbacks right now," Spurrier said recently. "So it's really crucial that our line plays well."
It is just as important that the Gamecocks identify their best linemen by the end of preseason camp -- something they failed to do in each of Spurrier's first two seasons. Offensive line coach John Hunt knows USC's September road schedule as well as anyone: at Georgia on Sept. 8, at LSU on Sept. 22.
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"They'll get there. We've just got to get them there by Game 1 or Game 2," Hunt said. "I feel pretty good about them. I'm optimistic."
Hunt, who worked with Spurrier at Florida and the Washington Redskins, said part of the difficulty in determining his top linemen the past two years was a muddled mass of players with similar skill levels.
As a result, the Gamecocks endured a trial-and-error process in 2006 before finding a successful combination in week eight. The line's steady play allowed Spurrier to return Blake Mitchell to the starting lineup. The right-hander responded with a strong finish.
With USC losing its three interior linemen, Hunt must begin the process again. This time, Spurrier has said repeatedly he expects the line to jell more quickly.
While returning starters Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorensen look like solid ends at the tackle spots, Hunt hoped to leave spring practice with a clear understanding of how to fill the holes in between.
"It didn't happen. They came out all in a group again," Hunt said. "I hope by the end of this fall (camp) there will be a clear-cut (line)."
Last week Spurrier said seniors Web Brown and James Thompson were are the leading candidates to start at center and right guard, respectively. Second-year players Garrett Anderson, who started four games as a freshman, and Kevin Young, who redshirted last year, are fighting for the spot at left guard.
The 6-foot-3, 316-pound Thompson was a highly ranked prospect from Sumter who was a second-team USA Today All-American, but injuries and off-the-field issues have plagued the Sumter native. Thompson was slated to start last season before getting suspended the first four games for violating team rules.
"The only thing that held me back is some of the stuff that I've gone through," Thompson said. "It's not stuff that was going on with the team. It's stuff that's going on with mistakes that I made. But right now I'm just looking forward to this season and helping my team win."
Spurrier praised the linemen's efforts this summer, saying they made every weight workout. The group's success in the classroom encouraged Hunt, who said the development of walk-on guard Seth Edwards as a starter last year might change how he evaluates players.
"He's 275 pounds playing against guys that are a lot bigger, stronger, and he held his own. (Edwards) was just a smart, tough guy," Hunt said. "So I'm thinking to myself, 'I need to look a little deeper into that.'"
Meredith, a junior from Simpsonville, has the brains-and-brawn dynamic that Hunt mentioned. The 6-5, 293-pounder, described in the USC media guide as "one of the most intelligent players on the team," has started 16 consecutive games at tackle.
Despite public concerns about the front five, Meredith believes the line will be fine.
"I'm not really concerned with what most people say. I'm just concerned with what's going on within our team. I feel like it's going to be OK," Meredith said. "It'll take some time, but they're coming along."
Time is not necessarily on the Gamecocks' side.