Kirk Botkin put together a spring practice depth chart this month because he was asked to, not because he has any idea of who will start at linebacker for South Carolina in the fall.
“There are no starters right now, so you better give effort and you better learn what to do,” the Gamecocks’ second-year linebackers coach said after the team’s first practice of the spring.
Still, sophomore Kaiwan Lewis has to be considered a first among equals as South Carolina begins preparation for the 2013 season. The Gamecocks’ top four players at middle and weakside linebacker, including top tackler Shaq Wilson, from 2012 have departed, leaving plenty of opportunity for playing time and Lewis as the only candidate with anything approaching experience at the collegiate level.
The 6-foot, 228-pound New Jersey native played in 11 games and recorded three tackles last year. Almost all his action came on kickoff coverage, but he did get a few plays at linebacker late in big South Carolina wins.
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“I was happy I got that experience,” Lewis said. “I got to go and see the big environments in the SEC like LSU, and then come play at home against Georgia. It was good.”
That taste of SEC football will help Lewis as much or more than anything he learned on the game field last year, Botkin said.
“Just being in different environments in SEC stadiums, running down covering a kickoff, sitting in every meeting we had throughout the season listening to the older guys,” Botkin said. “I think he picked up a lot from that just maturity wise. The first time we go play Tennessee in front of 100,000, it won’t be new to him. Some of these other guys might be a little star struck whereas he’s been there. He’s kind of done that. He’s got his feet wet a little bit.”
As a full member of the varsity last year, Lewis had a head start on his fellow young linebackers as the Gamecocks lined up for their first day of practice Tuesday.
“I am still young, but I felt like I knew a lot,” he said. “I moved some guys around on the (defensive) line. I could help those guys out so that was good.”
Lewis is listed as the starter at middle linebacker ahead of freshman T.J. Holloman.
“We have two groups going right now so there is competition,” Botkin said. “If one is messing up a bunch, we’ll throw the other one in there, and they know it. They know if they are not doing right, if they’re not learning their assignment, if they’re not hustling, the other one is going to get back in there.”
Lewis brings a physical and vocal nature to the position, he said. The former four-star recruit (he was considered a three-star player by two recruiting services) has dropped seven pounds of what he called “extra weight” since arriving at college.
“When I am coming, I’m going to hit you. I bring that to the game,” Lewis said. “Come the fall, hopefully, I will be the guy with the job, but I am just coming out here to get better.”