April 7, 2008

Eckerson Striving To Win Left Tackle Job

Hutch Eckerson was a junior at Lumberton (N.C.) High School four years ago when Jamon Meredith was beginning his college football career at South Carolina.

Late in the 2004 season opener against Vanderbilt, Meredith, then a true freshman, was inserted into the game for three plays by the previous Gamecock coaching staff.

Little did Eckerson know, but those few moments would pave the way for him to claim the starting left tackle job when the 2008 season opens Aug. 28.

Meredith has started 18 consecutive games at left tackle for USC, but that streak will come to a halt at the outset of the upcoming season when he'll be forced to sit out the first two contests as a condition of the NCAA granting him a medical hardship for the 2004 season.

Offensive line coach John Hunt will rely on either Eckerson or redshirt freshman Quintin Richardson to fill the left tackle void left by Meredith.

Based on his two years of experience in the system, Eckerson has the edge. But he views Richardson as a friendly rival.

"(Starting at left tackle) is definitely my main goal," Eckerson said. "I want to be able to be consistent. I want the coaches to have the confidence to leave me in there the entire time. Quintin and I are great friends. He pushes me and I push him. We just try to go out there and play our best. We're for each other the whole time."

Knowing Meredith won't be available for the N.C. State (Au. 28) and Vanderbilt (Sept. 4) games, Hunt has left little to chance, putting Eckerson at the first-team left tackle spot for most of the eight spring practices and one scrimmage the Gamecocks have conducted to date.

Is Eckerson ready to handle such an important task?

Well, he's been there before.

Eckerson started five games at left tackle as a true freshman in 2006. He entered the lineup for the Wofford game when Steve Spurrier made wholesale changes on offense following mediocre performances in the opening two games.

"Yeah, they sort of threw me into the mix a little bit," Eckerson recalled. "I went out there and did the best I could. I learned the other guys (defense) are pretty big and strong and fast. The way things went, the other guys came in and played well later. I'm getting a second chance here. I'm not going to give up my spot lightly. I want to come out here and play like I know I can."

Eckerson remained the starter at left tackle for five games in 2006 until the win at Vanderbilt when Meredith replaced him after halftime. The senior from Simpsonville, S.C. has remained the starting left tackle ever since.

But the NCAA's ruling on Meredith's request for a medical hardship for 2004 has opened the door for Eckerson, who says he's better prepared physically to take on the challenge of protecting the quarterback's blind side.

After unexpectedly seeing significant action in 2006, Eckerson was redshirted last season. He spent most of the year in the weight room getting bigger and stronger under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach Mark Smith.

"I've definitely worked on my strength," Eckerson said. "It's definitely showing up out here with my play. I can feel my strength. (Sitting out in 2007) was pretty hard on me at first, but I had to just stay focused. I was reminded my time would come. I was able to really learn the plays and focus on my strength and size and keeping my weight up. The whole year, without the pressure of playing, really helped me a lot. I'm glad I did it."

When asked how much he has improved his bench press over the last 12 monhs, Eckerson quickly responded, "a lot." Not once, but twice.

"Coach Smith has done a great job to get me much stronger," Eckerson said. "That was definitely something I was lacking when I first came in. But I'm strong now, so it's all good."

While Eckerson has an opportunity for two games to make a positive impression upon the coaches, a dilemma could arise when Meredith returns to the active roster for the Sept. 13 home game against Georgia.

If Eckerson is playing well enough, Meredith may have to find another position, possibly right tackle.

"Jamon is a great player and I'm sure they'll try to get him back in there somewhere," Eckerson said. "We'll see what happens. I don't know what will happen for that."

Eckerson, who stands 6-foot-6, was listed at 285 pounds as a true freshman in the 2006 media guide. This spring, he weighs close to 300 pounds. He'll need the additional weight to consistently block all those SEC defensive ends known for their rare combination of size and speed.

So far, he's pleased with his performance in spring practice.

"My main objective was to mature and play like I know I can play," Eckerson said. "I think I've done a decent job. I've really been working on my steps. But there's definitely room for much improvement. I just try to come out here everyday, work hard, do my best, and play like the coaches tell me to."

The first game action of his career came in the 2006 Georgia game at Williams-Brice Stadium. Eckerson recalls having to battle All-America defensive end Quentin Moses.

"That was definitely my first time playing somebody of that caliber," Eckerson said. "It was a lot of fun. Each game that season was a new adventure for me. It sort of all happened quickly. Now, I'm into the system and I'm learning the plays. It's kind of slowing down and I understand everything a lot better."

This spring, Eckerson has a firm grasp on the most important position on an offensive line that's received its share of criticism in the off-season following a disappointing 2007 campaign that saw USC finish last in the SEC in rushing and next-to-last in sacks allowed.

The offensive line has received the majority of the blame for both of those dismal rankings. Eckerson believes the O-Line will perform better in 2008.

"It was definitely an up-and-down season last year. We're looking at this as a fresh start," Eckerson said. "We're just trying to get coached up and get everybody with a good attitude. Everyone has come out and worked hard every practice. The coaches are into it. The players are into it. We're having fun learning everything."

Eckerson was one of the highest-rated offensive line prospects signed by USC two years ago. He was considered one of the top 10 players regardless of position in North Carolina and represented the Tar Heel State in the Shrine Bowl.

Garrett Anderson, who's out for the spring with a back injury, Seaver Brown, Kevin Young (also out for the spring with a shoulder injury), Pierre Andrews and Heath Batchelor are also members of the same signing class.

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