“That’s the ultimate punishment, when you pancake somebody and you make their head hit before the rest of their body. That’s when they get up and they know you just ruined their entire world and it’s going to be a very long game.”
Zack Bailey’s eyes gleam as he says this. The face of South Carolina’s new starting right tackle looks the same as yours might while describing your favorite moment in life to date.
Maybe that sense of glee at dominating a foe is what sold new offensive line coach Eric Wolford on the idea of moving Bailey outside. For a Gamecocks line that struggled for much of 2016, Bailey’s play at left guard was the one consistent bright spot. And if he can perform at the same level in his new role, it would be a big boost for quarterback Jake Bentley and, in turn, the entire offense.
Bentley emerged as South Carolina’s starting quarterback of the future after taking over in the role during the second half of last season. Last season, both Perry Orth (then a fifth-year senior) and Brandon McIlwain (a true freshman who has since transferred) started before Bentley finally took over in the Gamecocks’ seventh game in late October.
Bailey, though, feels that anticipated stability under center will help his entire unit this season.
“It helps out the chemistry of the line,” Bailey said. “We’re not focused on who’s back there and how they’re going to throw it. We know he’s back there and he’s going to launch the ball every single time he can and give us his all.”
But regardless of the quarterback, South Carolina struggled in pass protection last season, particularly against heavy pressure off the edges last season. The Gamecocks allowed 41 sacks – the worst total in the SEC and 119th out of 128 teams in FBS.
To make matters worse, they also ranked near the bottom both in the SEC and nationally in rushing offense with just 134.38 yards per game.
So far, Bailey says the biggest challenge in his transition to right tackle has been adjusting his stance. The 6-foot-6, 311-pound junior’s confident he has it down now but acknowledges only game experience will allow him to be sure.
“You might think you’re doing good,” Bailey said, “but when you get out there on the field and play someone else, you don’t know how much training he’s had, how much he’s done in his offseason, so you won’t know until you get out there.”
Bailey gives Wolford – who spent the past two seasons as the assistant offensive line coach with the San Francisco 49ers – a lot of credit for his ability to make the switch, saying there’s been more focus on specific details of technique than in previous seasons.
“He told us from day one he’s going to coach us just like we’re in the NFL,” Bailey said. “He tells us straight forward how it is – you might like it, you might hate it. Doesn’t matter.”
If Bailey shows the same skill at tackle as he did at guard, instead of getting coached like he’s in the NFL next season, he might be ready for the real thing. With NC State’s highly touted defensive line coming up in South Carolina’s opener on Sept. 2, he’ll find out quickly how far he’s come.
(You can follow Heath Cline on Twitter @heathradio)
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