COLUMBIA -- South Carolina offensive line coach John Hunt does not need Steve Spurrier to tell him how good the Gamecocks' line could be this year.
Hunt cringed last year when Spurrier talked the line up during the preseason, only to watch the front five struggle to develop any chemistry and protect the quarterback.
But while Spurrier is keeping a lid on his expectations this camp, Hunt has a quiet confidence in a group that could be the deepest in Spurrier's four seasons in Columbia.
"Coach was real optimistic about us last year, a lot more optimistic than I was, and kind of jazzed everybody up. They'd had a good summer in the weight room, but nobody had really played," Hunt said recently. "This year, I'm coming in with a lot more optimism because they've had multiple summers now working hard. They've been in the offense long enough. They've actually got some playing time in some pretty tough stadiums across the country under their belt. You can't put a price tag on that."
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The Gamecocks allowed 31 sacks last season -- more than any SEC team except Kentucky's 38 -- while Hunt tried in vain to find a successful combination. Even with center Web Brown and tackles Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorensen starting every game, USC used six lineups up front as Hunt rotated through six guards.
Four of those guards return, including expected starters Lemuel Jeanpierre and Heath Batchelor.
But a more telling sign of the Gamecocks' improved depth is this: Meredith, whose 29 starts over the past three seasons are second only to Kenny McKinley on USC's roster, might not have his spot when he returns from sitting the first two games in compliance with an NCAA eligibility ruling.
While Meredith is out, USC will trust the left tackle job to Hutch Eckerson or Jarriel King, the Georgia Military transfer who signed originally with the Gamecocks in 2005. While some might argue King's best position is defensive end, Hunt has had his eyes on King since watching tape of the 6-foot-7, 285-pounder at North Charleston.
"He was a two-way player in high school and a tremendous offensive tackle," Hunt said. "But he was a pretty dadgum good defensive player, too, so I wasn't sure if I was going to get him. But I'd be sure to take him if I did."
If King or Eckerson plays well the first two games, Hunt could plug Meredith in at guard.
"If we have a position that we're struggling at, then I can probably insert Jamon there and strengthen that spot," Hunt said. "But if everybody's playing well, then I'd have to get Jamon back in at that left tackle spot. It gives us some depth."
Which is a luxury the 45-year-old Hunt has not always had. During Spurrier's first season in 2005, the Gamecocks had to start walk-on Thomas Coleman in a nationally televised game against Alabama (a 37-14 loss) after Jabari Levey was injured.
USC had seven scholarship linemen the following spring before reinforcements arrived: The seven linemen the Gamecocks signed in 2006 are beginning their third year in the program. Four of those players have starting experience: Batchelor, Eckerson and the two candidates vying for the center job -- Garrett Anderson and Seaver Brown.