Kirk Botkin and Lorenzo Ward look at this year’s crop of linebackers and see youth, talent, athleticism and speed.
South Carolina’s defensive coaching staff also will have options at linebacker and spur when preseason practice begins Friday.
Twelve scholarship players are expected to battle for a spot in the two-deep of the Gamecocks’ three linebacker roles.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can run, who are physical,” said Botkin, who coaches the linebackers and spurs. “The best thing about them is they’re competitors. They want to be really good right now. The competition ought to be intense.”
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Botkin and Ward will work with seven returning players and five true freshmen — nine at linebacker and three at the spur spot. Those who earn time on the field will replace five seniors who accounted for 273 tackles last season, a third of the team’s production there.
USC’s preseason depth chart lists sophomore Cedrick Cooper as the starting weakside linebacker, sophomore Kaiwan Lewis as the top middle linebacker and junior Sharrod Golightly as the starting spur.
“When we start Aug. 2 practice, it’s a new ballgame,” Botkin said. “There are no starters. You’re going to have to earn your stripes when you get out there.”
Cooper will see the practice field for the first time since an ACL injury sustained in Outback Bowl preparations. The sophomore is fully recovered, coaches said.
“He’ll be thrown right into the fire,” said Ward, USC’s defensive coordinator.
Marcquis Roberts and Kelvin Rainey return at the weakside position after making their debut there in the spring. Roberts, a sophomore, moved over from spur. Rainey, a redshirt freshman, switched from tight end.
They’ll be joined by newcomers Larenz Bryant and Skai Moore. At 215 and 205 pounds, respectively, they’re the lightest of the four true freshmen.
Ward declared Roberts — who missed 2011 and 2012 with injuries — the most impressive linebacker of the spring.
“He likes to attack, and that’s my style,” Ward said. “He’s a physical kid, and he enjoys playing the game.”
Lewis returns at middle linebacker after starting as a freshman in 2012, playing mostly on special teams. Coaches were pleased with how Lewis and redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman handled calling the defensive plays in the spring.
Freshmen David Johnson and Jonathan Walton will compete with Lewis and Holloman for playing time.
All four of the linebacker newcomers were recruited with the selling point that seeing the field in 2013 was a possibility. They all could play as freshmen, coaches said, on defense or special teams.
“They’ll be in the mix somewhere,” Ward said. “They’ll all have opportunities. It just depends on how they show the knowledge of what we’re doing and the physicality of what we expect in this conference.”
At spur, where Holloman shouldered the load in 2012, Golightly and redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs will pick up where they left off in the spring. Though Golightly enters camp with an edge, the battle is close, coaches said.
Incoming freshman Mohamed Camara will train at spur as well.
The coaches’ goals are to find six Gamecocks — four linebackers and two spurs — and rotate them throughout each game. Ten to 12 could wind up playing on game days, with many helping on special teams, Botkin said.
The first part of camp will include equal reps for each player. Coaches expect leaders to emerge at each position, though some battles could go close to opening week, Botkin said.
Botkin and Ward pointed to the experience of last year’s linebackers as a luxury. This year, luxury is found in a stout defensive line playing in front of a linebacker corps with no career starts and 19 tackles.
“We’ll be fine at linebacker,” Botkin said. “It’s going to be fun to watch them grow.”
WHO’S BACK: Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis and redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman return at the middle LB spot. Sophomores Marcquis Roberts and Cedrick Cooper are at weakside LB, along with redshirt freshman Kelvin Rainey. Junior Sharrod Golightly and redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs return at spur.
WHO’S GONE: All seniors — linebackers Shaq Wilson, Damario Jeffery, Quin Smith and Reginald Bowens, plus spur DeVonte Holloman. Wilson is back as a graduate assistant who will work with linebackers.
BEST BATTLE: Diggs and Golightly likely will battle all preseason for who starts — or plays the most — at spur.
KEY QUESTION: USC has four true freshman LBs. How many will see the field right away and in what roles? Coaches believe all four have a chance, at least on special teams.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Cooper appears to be fully healed from an ACL injury. He’s atop the preseason depth chart at weakside LB and should stay there with a solid August.