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September 5, 2012
Six days ago, South Carolina linebackers coach Kirk Botkin coached in his first SEC game since 2009, when he was a member of the Arkansas coaching staff.
For his group, last week in Nashville was highlighted by Shaq Wilson's red-zone interception in the first quarter. After that, it settled in and played solid football for most of the night with no glaring mishaps.
As always, though, the opening game has given Botkin plenty of teaching moments in the video room and on the practice field this week.
"For the first game, I thought we played OK," Botkin said. "Obviously, we can get better. But the first game, it wasn't bad. We can get better, though. As the game went on, I thought our stances deteriorated a little bit. Sometimes our eyes weren't in the right place. We just need to focus on fundamentals. We need to tackle better. We missed a couple of tackles that we probably shouldn't of. Just some little things."
The key for a linebacker, Botkin said, is to keep his pad level low, trust his eyes and explode towards the football.
"It's still a game about pad level," Botkin said. "So, when you start getting a little high in your stance, you can't step, you can't get the right read. As a linebacker, your first two steps determine if you get blocked or don't get blocked. If you're up high and taking a crappy first step, you're probably going to get blocked.
"So, getting high in your stance hurts you. Your body is going to follow your eyes. If you're not keying what you're supposed to be keying, you're looking at something else and you won't be in the right spot. We just need to focus on those two things (stance and eyes)."
Including the spur, the linebacking chores were handled primarily by three players - middle linebacker Reginald Bowens (37 snaps), outside linebacker Shaq Wilson (57 snaps) and spur DeVonte Holloman (59). Damario Jeffery played 15 snaps at Mike, giving Bowens an occasional breather on a humid night in Music City.
Wilson, of course, turned in one of the most memorable plays of the game - and possibly the year - when he stayed home and leaped to intercept a cross-field pass from Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers.
"On that play, he did his job," Botkin said. "He didn't start chasing the ball. He just did his job. The opportunity came to him and he made a play. He did it all night. He's a smart kid that understands different tendencies and different formations. He can call the fronts, he can help the spur get lined up, he can help a bunch of people.
"The beauty about Shaq is he can probably play all three positions - spur, Mike and Will. He knows all three. He is very flexible. The more you can do, the more reason people have to keep you around. He has the ability to do that. The more versatile you are, the more valuable you are."
Wilson has 168 tackles and three interceptions in his career and should reach the 200-tackle plateau by midseason, as long as he remains healthy.
"He's the leader of our defense and he's always around the ball," cornerback Victor Hampton said. "It's great to come out and see the leader every day setting the tone. He leads by example."
The physically gifted Bowens made his ninth career start, the first at middle linebacker. He was credited with six tackles.
"He has to do those two things (stance and eyes) that I was talking about," Botkin said. "He has to get his eyes in the right place and be a little more physical."
Holloman was credited with just one tackle, but Botkin said the senior played well at spur.
"He didn't have a bunch of stats, but he played really well just doing his job," Botkin said. "They were often in some of those bunch sets for those wide sweep plays and he was taking out two guys and another guy would run in and make the play. That's a heck of a play. He did a good job with disruptions. He did that numerous times."
Freshman Jordan Diggs didn't play a snap at spur, but contributed on special teams.
"Had the game been a little different, he might have gone in," Botkin said. "But there are no guarantees right now. He's preparing like he's going to play."
As one of the team leaders, Wilson's message this week has been clear - they can't afford a repeat of last year when the Gamecocks fell behind 17-0 to East Carolina in the second quarter before exploding for 56 points over the final 38 minutes.
"We have to go out there ready," Wilson said. "We can't let anybody get up on us like that anymore. They're a team that can beat us. They were up 17-0 last year. We have to come out hitting on all cylinders since we're playing in front of our home crowd. That's a good thing. We get to use the crowd to our advantage because they're going to do a lot of audibling with their hurry up. We need the crowd to keep us going."
Consistency on defense was an elusive goal last week in the win at Vanderbilt. Wilson hopes that won't be a problem on Saturday.
"We have to make sure everybody is playing hard and everybody is on the same page," Wilson said.
Does his interception at Vanderbilt show that Wilson is ready to step into the big-play role formerly held by Eric Norwood and Melvin Ingram?
"I feel we have a lot of guys that can do that," Wilson said. "Of course, I want to be up there. But we want to have 11 people going to the ball at all times. Any of the 11 could have made that play."
CLOWNEY AROUND: Sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney turned in a solid performance in his 14th career game with four tackles, two for loss, and one sack as he battled a pair of more experienced Vanderbilt offensive tackles for most of the night.
"We already knew they had a lot of redshirt seniors and redshirt juniors that were older than us," Clowney said. "I thought we did our part. We had some sacks and kept them contained in the box. It was pretty humid out there. We were on the field a lot in the first half because the offense turned the ball over. But that happens."
Clowney made his heralded debut in last year's season-opener against East Carolina, but now he is more experienced, more prepared and more knowledgeable on how to defend ECU's high-tempo passing attack.
"We're not really going to do anything differently (in terms of rushing the quarterback)," Clowney said. "We'll do our part, play our assignment and let the (defensive backs) take care of the quick pass. We can just get our hands up when the ball comes out and affect the passer. But we're going to be challenged this week.""
As expected, USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing utilized Clowney in a number of different spots and he knows the 6-foot-6, 256-pounder from South Pointe High School will attract plenty of interest and attention from opposing offensive coordinators.
"I'm sure people are going to be aware of where he's at," Lawing said. "We moved him last week. He stood up some and played our spinner. Then we had him down on the outside. I'm going to move him around just like I did with Melvin and Eric Norwood and Cliff Matthews, to some extent. People will want to find out where's he's at, I'm sure."
CONFIDENCE IN GURLEY: How much confidence does defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward have in freshman defensive back T.J. Gurley? He was given the assignment of attacking the quarterback on the zero blitz call on Vanderbilt's final play from scrimmage.
"My eyes got big. I timed it a little too late," said Gurley, who said he is currently playing both safety and cornerback. "I knew I had to go make a play for the team. I could have had a sack. I got my chance. I'll try to get one this week. Coach Ward likes aggressive players. You have to play aggressive and don't be timid or scared. We've worked on (zero blitz) a lot.
"At first, I didn't really think anything about it (the amount of trust Ward put him in), but when I got home I realized he called a blitz for me on fourth down. That means he has confidence in me."
USC defensive backs coach Grady Brown said that Gurley will quickly fit into a number of important roles for the Gamecocks.
"He blitzed on that play, but that's not the only blitz that we have in the defensive playbook," Brown said. "He won't just be a blitzer here. He'll cover some and play in space. He's going to be a really good football player."
Gurley, one of four true freshmen to appear in the game for the Gamecocks, acknowledged just a hint of nervousness when he first stepped onto the field at Vanderbilt Stadium. He was on the field for the Commodores' first series and eventually played seven snaps.
"I wasn't really nervous. My parents were at the game, so I was just trying to put on a show. You have to grow up sometime," Gurley said.
This week, Gurley and the USC defense are preparing to defend against East Carolina's fast-paced passing offense that seeks to exploit mistakes and confusion by the defenses.
"We'll be ready. We just have to get the tempo and get our calls in faster," Gurley said. "They like to do fast stuff, so we just have to get set up more quickly."
BIG TEST FOR EAST CAROLINA O-LINE: East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill knows his offensive line will be sorely tested on Saturday by a USC defensive front that's big, strong and fast. The ECU offensive line possesses plenty of size, though, with four of the five first-team blockers exceeding 300 pounds.
The mammoth group is highlighted by 341-pound right guard Will Simmons. Junior left tackle Adhem Elsawi is 6-foot-5 and 312 pounds, while senior right tackle Robert Jones is 6-3 and 309 pounds. Elsawi and Jones have the responsibility, of course, of trying to block Clowney and Devin Taylor roaring off the edge.
"South Carolina has two of the top defensive ends in the country in Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor," McNeill said on Monday at his weekly press conference. "Both of them have first-round draft choice type of ability and cover a lot of ground. The (offensive line) group did some very positive things against Appalachian State on Saturday.
"South Carolina will provide and present a whole new test for them and the rest of the team. Both the offensive line and our defensive line will be challenged and I expect those guys to rise to the expectations we have for them. The fundamental improvement that I talked about will start with the offensive line."
* Lawing said that Vanderbilt did not slide its protection to provide more help blocking Clowney after he made several tackles and sacked the quarterback in the first couple of series.
* Lawing said that defensive tackle Byron Jerideau "did a good job holding the point," while Kelcy Quarles "has the ability to make plays for us and he made some plays." Quarles registered his first career sack. Lawing said Jerideau "has to learn to keep inside contain" because Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers scrambled up the middle on a couple of occasions. Lawing said USC has addressed the issue in practice this week.
* Lawing said the USC defensive line had "a real good practice" on Tuesday. "If you work hard and improve during the season, you have a chance to be a better team," Lawing said. "We've got to have a good day tomorrow and have a good day on Saturday."
* Lawing said that redshirt freshman defensive tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. played about 16 snaps in last week's opener. "I've been really pleased with him," Lawing said. "He is very athletic and knowledgeable about the game. He was well-coached in high school." Phillip Dukes stepped onto the field for two snaps. "I'm looking forward to coaching Phillip Dukes and Junior for the next four years. They're unique individuals and like football," Lawing said.
* McNeill said that three wide receivers suspended for the opener against Appalachian State - Dayon Arrington, Danny Webster and Antonio Cannon - have been reinstated and practiced with the Pirates on Monday and Tuesday.
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