By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
When right tackle Zack Bailey went down with an ankle injury in the third game of the season last year, backup Blake Camper thought it was his big chance to get into the lineup.
Instead, junior Malik Young started the following week against Louisiana Tech and again at Texas A&M. It wasn't until the sixth game of the season, after injuries to both Bailey and Young, that Camper got into the game for South Carolina. He wound up starting at Tennessee and in the Outback Bowl against Michigan.
That was enough to convince him that he wanted more. And that he had to make big changes to earn it.
"I expected better from myself," Camper said. "I didn't come here to play four games out of a season if somebody maybe got hurt."
Camper, a 6-8, 310-pound senior from Virginia Beach, Va., has played in 31 games in his Gamecock career, mostly on special teams. He made one start on the offensive line as a freshman in 2015 and one more as a sophomore in 2016 before injuring his left ankle and missing the next four games.
When Bailey went down last season, it presented an opportunity. But it also sent Camper a message that he needed to work harder and get better if he wanted to earn more playing time.
"When Zack went down, I thought, this is my chance and I really felt like I went out and did what I needed to do," he said. "I felt like I performed decent but I knew I could do better and now I am just really wanting to get things going in the offseason. I knew I needed to get stronger in order to be even more effective than I was. That was really one of the big things for me. I needed to fix these small, minor things."
"Blake, basically, saw the light," offensive line coach Eric Wolford said. "He made a decision last winter that he was going to change his body, he was going to do the things away from the building when you are not here to become a good football player. He changed his body, his commitment, his confidence is at a higher level and he's a guy that we are counting on."
Camper entered training camp as the starter at right tackle and is expected to play a key role on a revamped offensive line. With Bailey moving back to his more natural position at left guard, Camper appears entrenched at right tackle with little depth behind him.
He used the two starts last season as motivation and a lesson for what he needed to do to prepare for his senior season.
"I was looking forward to coming into the season knowing that I had the potential of starting and that really clicked in my head, like I need to do the things that I need to do on and off the field in order to be successful," he said.
Camper spent the offseason working with Nutrition Director Kristen Coggin to lose weight and with strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman to add it back in muscle and gain strength. He admits he worked harder this offseason than he had during his first three years on campus.
"I didn't do the things I needed to do and I'll take the complete blame for that and I'll admit that," he said. "But I'm really excited I was able to turn things around and fix what I needed to fix and I'm going into the season moving forward."
Camper has drawn high praise from his teammates on the offensive line who see a leaner, stronger, more imposing right tackle.
"Blake has been killing it in the weight room," center Donnel Stanley said. "He is lifting extra and I'm excited to see how he produces. I'm confident in him playing that tackle position for us."
"He's doing a tremendous job, especially this summer," Bailey said. "He was in here every single day getting extra lifts in, me and him talking, going over plays. He's really trying to be all he can be and working hard, getting his weight up. I think he is really molding himself into that right tackle position."
Camper's presence is crucial to the Gamecock offensive line. Three starters return with left tackle Dennis Daley joining Bailey and Stanley. Sophomore Sadarius Hutcherson, who shined in four starts last season and was South Carolina's best lineman in the spring, will start beside Camper at right guard.
At 6-8 and 310, Camper has the ideal body for a right tackle. His height and length should allow him to hold off speedy pass rushers in the SEC.
"He's tall, he's fast and he has tremendous arm length," Bailey said. "When he puts his hands on people I think they will be surprised by the length that he has and the extension he can give people as far as widening out the pocket."
"He's got good feet and hands and he's got way more power from a year ago," Stanley said. "I played beside him at guard [last year] and he was a little iffy, especially in the Tennessee game, but I feel confident in him now. He's ready to go."
Camper is ready to contribute to what most believe can be a much-improved offensive line.
"I think we can be great," he said. "I think the standard that Coach Wolford has instilled in us is to not accept anything but greatness. I think we are going to be a really good O-Line."
After three disappointing seasons and an offseason of commitment and hard work, he is ready to do his part.
"I'm never going to give up on the team and I am going to do whatever it takes, whatever role they need me to play, I will do it," he said. "I think I have done a good job in the offseason of showing that I am willing to do anything."