South Carolina’s new linebackers got positive reviews after Tuesday’s practice from defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and linebackers coach Kirk Botkin.
You can read more about this in Wednesday’s print edition, and you can also read some earlier thoughts on the linebackers in this previous blog entry, but there were some items that didn’t make the cut for Wednesday’s story, and here they are …
First off, remember that USC is just six practices into its allotted 15 for the spring. Tuesday was supposed to be the seventh practice, but Saturday’s scrimmage was rained out.
So while the coaches are encouraged with the new linebackers, it’s still early, and USC is a long way from playing in an actual game.
At this point, the starting linebackers are sophomore Kaiwan Lewis at mike, redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman at will and either redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs or junior Sharrod Golightly at spur. Or maybe they will rotate, Botkin said.
Sophomore Cedrick Cooper is out for the spring with a knee injury, and he could push Holloman for the will job when he returns.
(A quick clarification on what mike, will and spur mean: Mike is the middle of the three linebackers and is responsible for setting up the defensive front before the snap. Will is a similar inside linebacker position, but doesn’t have to set the front. Spur is a linebacker/safety hybrid who sometimes has to stop the run and sometimes has to drop into pass coverage. The specific duties of the spur spot vary based on the size of the guy playing it.)
The biggest thing with young players is the mental side of the game – getting lined up before the snap, for one – and Ward likes the progress the linebackers have made in that area.
“I think they’re getting better,” he said. “I thought we did a better job today of getting lined up. When we get one-back teams, we should have one gap, so when I see them getting lined up in that one gap, we’re doing a better job. We’ve still got to work on seeing pulling (offensive) linemen and stuff like that. I’m pleased with where they’re at so far.”
It’ll be interesting to see how Ward and Botkin deploy Golightly and Diggs, since they are more in the mold of Antonio Allen rather than DeVonte Holloman, last year’s starting spur.
“They’re not going to be two guys who are going to be big enough that I can just line (them) up and put them on a tight end and be physical on every down,” Ward said. “So I’ve got to make sure I put them in defenses where they can be successful. We’ll use their speed and quickness to our advantage. We’ll bring them a lot off the edge. We’ll do what they can do.”
Said Golightly: “I do think, these past two years, I’ve learned a lot from both Antonio and DeVonte. With both of their help to my advantage, I’ve got a little wisdom and my quickness.
“When I first moved to the position (in spring 2012 as a full-time spur), I thought everything was using your feet and being quicker than the other guy. But your hands have a lot to do with it. You’ve got to get (bigger tight ends) off you. You just have to use your hands, make sure he doesn’t touch you, and use your feet at the same time.”
Golightly, at 179 pounds, is lighter than Diggs, who is 197. But Diggs knows that speed will be his biggest asset.
“Especially when I have to meet up with those fullbacks,” Diggs said. “If I can get there before they pick up speed, it’s really good, especially since me and Sharrod are smaller guys than DeVonte. It’s really good for us to get a good read on the snap and get back there and put those pads to them before they give it to us.
“I think definitely (the style of this year’s spur spot) will be different. DeVonte was very physical and he had a big body, so he could get in and mix it up with those guys and get in a little tussle. Me and Sharrod, we have to use our hands and use our speed to our advantage.”
Said Botkin: “DeVonte was bigger, so he brought a little different style of play. He was better against the run. These two guys are a little bit more safety-type bodies, where they’re a little bit better out in space than DeVonte. But DeVonte was so smart, that helped him with everything.
“Lining up on a tight end and taking on fullbacks, they’re not 242 pounds like DeVonte was. So we can back up off the tight ends just a little bit when they’re lining up on them instead of getting as close as DeVonte would get, because he was physical enough and strong enough to handle it. We can back up and use their athleticism a little bit more than what we did with DeVonte.
“Maybe play a little bit more man coverage on No. 2 (receivers) because these guys are doing a pretty good job right now against our receivers. Different body styles present different problems and different plusses.”
When players get to college, Botkin said, they often don’t understand the concept of trusting their help on defense, and they don’t grasp that they don’t have to make the play all the time. They can just do their job, stay in their assigned spot, and redirect the play to a teammate who is nearby to help. Diggs said he has done a much better job of this – trusting his help.
“I know where my help is, whereas last year, I was just really playing my assignment and not really knowing what the other guys were doing,” Diggs said. “I didn’t know what the safeties were doing or what the corners were doing. I just knew that the spur is supposed to do this, and that’s what I did. Knowing (where the help is), it’s definitely helped me. Now I can just play instead of thinking so much.”
Straight-line speed is not Diggs’ strength, as he said his 40-yard dash time is just 4.8 seconds, but that doesn’t really matter for a linebacker, because a linebacker rarely has to run straight-ahead for 40 yards at a time.
“At spur, your sideline-to-sideline speed (is important), and if you can read and take good angles to the ball, you’ll be fine,” Diggs said.
At this point, Botkin said, Golightly is slightly ahead of Diggs in his understanding, which makes sense, because 2013 will be Golightly’s fourth season and Diggs’ second.
“You can tell he’s a little bit more mature than Diggs,” Botkin said. “And right now, he’s probably a little bit ahead mentally-wise, and just understanding where his help is in some things, where Diggs sometimes maybe not, just because he’s young. But Diggs is doing a really good job as well, but Golightly might have a slight edge just because of the whole overall understanding of the defenses and where his help is.”
Botkin and the linebackers raved about T.J. Holloman’s intelligence.
“You know he’s going to make the right calls and the right checks,” Diggs said. “If you don’t know the check or your guy is out there and you’re unsure about what the check is when we’re in a certain coverage, you definitely can look to T.J. and expect him to make the right call.”
Said Golightly: “He picks up things really quick. He picks up pulls (pulling offensive linemen). He knows gaps. He picks up different types of calls and coverages. I think he has a bright future because he is smart. T.J. processes information amazingly. The way he comes together and gets the plays as quick as he is in his first spring, it’s pretty impressive.”
Holloman credited his sharpness to the time he spent studying film and the playbook in January, after USC returned from the bowl game. He said graduate assistant Waylon Jackson was particularly helpful. Holloman said he studied in January with Diggs and Lewis, who were members of last year’s freshman class with him.
“We all got together and collaborated because we felt like it was our time, so there was a sense of urgency that we need to do it,” Holloman said. “I’m very knowledgeable.”
Botkin is challenging Holloman and Lewis to learn both the mike and the will spots, so they are both comfortable making the mike’s calls. They are practicing at both spots this spring. They have handled the dual roles well, and that hasn’t surprised Botkin, even though they are young.
“You could see it last year,” Botkin said. “You could see it when we had a couple meetings before spring starts. You could see how smart they are and how sharp they are. We’ve had a lot of meetings. They’re sharp kids.”