A Closer Look At the Gamecocks' Linebackers
South Carolina is going into the 2013 with lofty expectations. At the core of the Gamecocks’ case for SEC title contention is a strong defense. Obviously Jadeveon Clowney is a key component, but the entire defensive line should be stout. The secondary should also be solid.
The weak spot in the defensive armor is the linebacking corps. If South Carolina can’t sort out at least a reasonably effective group of linebackers, top teams will exploit that shortcoming.
This problem didn’t crop up overnight. No one surprised the coaching staff by leaving early for the draft. The graduation of Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens, Quin Smith and Damario Jeffery really exposed the fact that the Gamecocks hadn’t adequately prepared for the future.
Those four players accounted for 273 tackles last season. Wilson led South Carolina in tackles and Bowens was third on the team (via Football Reference). Smith and Jeffery, meanwhile, were good backups and ensured that the Gamecocks’ first- and second-string linebackers were experienced seniors.
Replacing those four senior players won’t be easy.
Fortunately, the Gamecocks typically only use two linebackers in the traditional sense. The spur linebacker, baring a real sea change in the depth chart, is Sharrod Golightly. He’s a speed guy who is capable of causing havoc in the backfield if he blitzes and can keep pace when he drops back in coverage.
The trouble? With Golightly’s slight frame and the way he’ll be used, the mike and will linebackers will need to shoulder most of the weight in terms of stopping the run.
At the moment, sophomores Cedrick Cooper and Kaiwan Lewis are the front runners for those two linebacker spots. Last season Cooper and Lewis combined for a mere four tackles. Despite that paltry number, they’re the only two lettermen competing for the job.
Backing up Lewis at the mike linebacker spot will be freshman TJ Holloman. Through the spring Holloman showed a good mind for the game. Though Lewis holds the starter spot for the time being, Holloman offers added depth at linebacker and could even develop into the superior player over the course of his college career.
Likewise, Kelvin Rainey is a backup with heaps of potential. Rainey will start the season second on the depth chart behind Cooper, but he flashed in the spring game. Rainey converted from tight end to linebacker. Despite the position change, he’s learned his new responsibilities pretty quickly and his athleticism is his biggest asset. Given Cooper’s experience, he’s ahead of Rainey, but it helps to have a backup with upside.
The linebackers clearly are the soft spot in the defense. None of these players are proven commodities. But they’ll improve with repetitions and likely have productive careers. The question is whether or not they’ll put everything together in time for the start of the season. North Carolina and Georgia won’t wait for young defensive talent to develop. Therefore this linebacking corps will need to be quick learners.