Entering his second season as South Carolina’s linebackers coach, Kirk Botkin is going to be a busy man this spring.
He has to replace all three starters from last year – mike Reggie Bowens, will Shaq Wilson and spur DeVonte Holloman.
Right now, the depth chart has true sophomore Kaiwan Lewis ahead of redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman at mike; the injured sophomore Cedrick Cooper (out for spring with a knee) ahead of sophomore Marcquis Roberts (converted spur) and redshirt freshman Kelvin Rainey (converted tight end who played linebacker in high school) at will; and junior Sharrod Golightly (a career backup at spur) ahead of redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs at spur, a natural spot for Diggs.
But, really, Botkin said, “There are no starters right now.”
Tuesday was the first day of spring practices, and Botkin said he won’t be shy about pulling guys in and out on a play-by-play basis if one guy is screwing up. Things are that up in the air right now at all three linebacker spots, making it USC’s most uncertain position this spring.
“You better give effort and you better learn what to do,” Botkin said. Or else you’re on the sideline.
As he reflected on the first practice, he said, “That’s probably more hollering than I did all of last year out there. I’ve got to holler at them to get them lined up in the right places.”
Botkin had the luxury of three seniors last year in Bowens, Wilson and DeVonte Holloman, all of who had extensive previous experience. That’s not the case with any of his current linebackers. The most experienced right now is Lewis, who played linebacker in mop-up duty last season and was mostly a special teams guy.
“Come fall, hopefully I’ll be the guy with the job,” said Lewis, who seems confident. “I’m not scared to talk. I know I have to talk loud, especially at the college level. I’m physical. When I’m coming, I’m going to hit you. I feel like I’ve got good size right now and I can run. Right now, I’m 6-1, 228. I was like 235 (when I came in), but I had a lot of extra weight on me.
“I played every game on special teams (last year). Now it’s time to try to take on a bigger role and be able to play maybe 60-plus snaps a game. I feel like I’m ready for it. I played mike last year. I’m the only one here that actually played mike, so that might put me (ahead) because I know (how) to call the fronts. Maybe that might (be an advantage), if anything.”
Moreover, because Lewis didn’t redshirt, he didn’t work exclusively with the scout team, as redshirting players do. He did work some with the scout team, but he was mostly with the regular defense and, more importantly, was in all of the regular defense meetings. Plus, he has game experience. Diggs does, too, but he got in just two September games before redshirting.
“(Lewis) got in (at linebacker) when we were up in some games,” Botkin said. “Just being in different environments in SEC stadiums, running down and covering a kickoff, sitting in every meeting we had throughout the season, listening to the older guys, Shaq Wilson and Reggie Bowens. I think he picked up a lot from that, just maturity wise. The first time we go play in Tennessee, it won’t be new for him. Some of these other guys, they might be a little bit star-struck. He’s been there and he’s kind of done it. He wasn’t on scout team a whole bunch. He did a little bit. But sitting through all the meetings we had, I think you can still learn a lot from that.”
Sometimes, the redshirting guys are in meetings, but other times, the coaches pull them out so they can go into the scout team meeting and learn the opponent’s defense, which they mimic during practice.
“But (guys who practice on the scout team are still) getting mental reps and it’s still fundamentals – keeping your shoulders square, footwork,” Botkin said. “You can work all your fundamentals (while playing on the scout team). Defenses, not a lot of them change a whole bunch (from one team to another), so you can still work on your fundamentals.”
Because of Roberts’ and Rainey’s inexperience, Botkin said Lewis, Holloman, Golightly and Diggs are “our four guys that we’re counting on for next year and then we’ve got to get the other ones caught up.”
Cooper also will be ready for August practices, when he will challenge for a starting job.
“It’s good right now that he’s out there and he’s watching,” Botkin said. “He did some early morning workouts this week. He can get a lot of mental reps and understanding what’s going on, some of the formations. He can learn a lot just from watching and talking. He’s going to be ready by two-a-days.”
Botkin was particularly pleased with Lewis’ first practice, and all things considered, he said, Rainey didn’t do too bad, either.
“He’s not as far ahead (mentally) as we’d like him to be,” Botkin said. “For the first day, not a bad day for him assignment-wise. He did pretty good. He’s transitioning from offense to defense, learning our defense and learning the terminology. He played linebacker in high school and we knew he was a pretty good linebacker coming out of high school.
“But he’s got to understand where his help is. Just getting lined up right is probably the biggest thing. He’s an athlete now. He’s a pretty looking kid. He’s tall, he’s rangy, he can run. He’s what you look for in a linebacker. In helmets (and shorts), it’s pretty easy to play linebacker. When we put the pads on, we’ll see how he does.”
Holloman is further along mentally, of course, since he was a linebacker last year.
“Very smart, very intellectual kid,” Botkin said. “He and Kaiwan Lewis are both learning mike and will. I’m putting (Holloman) in there (at mike) so he can set the front when he’s in there with some of the younger guys.”
It’ll be interesting to see in August how things shake out between Cooper, Lewis and Holloman for those mike and will spots.
USC got very good spur play from Allen (2009-11) and DeVonte Holloman (2012). Right now, Botkin isn’t sure who will grab that position.
“Golightly is a little bit older and he’s starting right now, but it could change Thursday,” Botkin said Tuesday. “We go back and watch the film today and it may switch. We need them both to step up and be contributors for next year.”
He said both Diggs and Golightly could play in games. Botkin isn’t against rotations at any of his linebackers spots.
“We want to be able to roll guys in and out,” Botkin said. “You line up on some of those 280-pound tight ends, beating you up, and you’d like to have a backup. Plus, all the special teams at linebacker and spur that we do, it’s nice if you can have guys rolling in and rolling out.”
Diggs was physically ready to play last season, but “mental-wise, I don’t know if he caught up as we wanted to,” Botkin said. So that’s why Botkin thinks it was a positive thing that he redshirted after getting early action, then sustaining a calf injury.
“He’s an athletic kid and strong kid and can cover and play out in the slot, line up on a tight end,” Botkin said of Diggs. “He’s got everything you want for a spur. Two years ago when we signed him, we signed him for that spur spot. He’s got a chance to be really good.”
Allen actually wasn’t a spur at first. He moved from strong safety to spur before the 2009 season. DeVonte Holloman did the same thing before last season. Botkin likes that Diggs is a natural spur. Not that Allen and DeVonte Holloman weren’t strong spurs. They certainly were.
Golightly is listed at 179 pounds, Diggs 197. Both are more in the lean mold of Allen than Holloman, a bulky player who weighed about 240. There are positives and negatives to both types of spur, Botkin said.
“Lining up on a tight end and taking on a fullback is a little different for a guy who’s 241 pounds than a guy who’s 215,” Botkin said. “But Diggs is a little bit better athlete maybe than DeVonte was. He can back up away from a tight end and still be able to use his athleticism, where DeVonte could tighten up on a tight end and beat him up, just because he was as strong as a lot of those guys.”
USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward knows that, throughout the spring, teaching these young linebackers will be a big focus.
“We’re trying to get them lined up, and like I just told them at the end (of the first practice), I thought it was a good first day effort-wise, but we’ve got to make sure we’re ready mentally,” Ward said. “We’ll keep it simple for them, especially for the linebackers, and if we get them lined up and get them running to the football, we’ll be fine. I can help dictate where they go when we get them lined up, or when they know where to line up. That’s what I told them: We’ve just got to learn where to line up.”