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May 1, 2013

Spring rewind: Linebackers

The transformation of the linebacker position is well underway now that the 15 spring practices are over.

Eleven of the 12 linebackers on the fall roster are expected to be freshmen or sophomores, an enormous adjustment for defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and linebackers coach Kirk Botkin from one year ago, when five dependable seniors patrolled the second level of the South Carolina defense.

In the middle, Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman showed that they have the aptitude, ability and acumen to adequately replace Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens.

"I feel we have two good Mike linebackers," Ward said. "Both are young. Lewis is probably ahead of T.J. Holloman right now. We'll play both of them. That's a good battle that will continue to last into fall camp."

Clearly, Ward and Botkin became more comfortable with Lewis and Holloman as the spring went on. When the workouts ended, both coaches raved about the duo, opening the door for a rotation between them that should keep both players fresh during games.

"That's the plan right now," Ward said. "Hopefully, both will continue to grow. We're definitely going to play both of them. Coach Botkin did a good job rotating this spring and that's what we'll see in fall camp."

Eyeing the future, Ward and Botkin put Lewis on the field last season as a member of USC's special teams instead of redshirting him. Ward believes that playing experience helped Lewis in the spring.

"That was part of the reason we played him on special teams, just so he could get some game experience," Ward said. "He didn't get a lot of (practice) reps at linebacker because we had the (five) seniors at that spot. We wanted to give those guys their opportunity to be successful and try to help them prepare for their future (in the NFL) if they had one after college football. But playing on special teams and learning the speed of the game helped him, and that's probably why he's a little ahead of T.J."

Despite being in just his second year with the program, Holloman has already gained a reputation as a cerebral player along the lines of Shaq Wilson, who used an encyclopedic knowledge of USC's defensive scheme to overcome a lack of size. However, at 6-foot-2, Holloman is several inches taller than Wilson.

"Both guys are really smart," Ward said of Lewis and Holloman. "Overall, I think we've improved the position, ability-wise. Shaq was a great mental player and always in the right spot. He took care of his assignment. That's what we'll end up getting when (Lewis and Holloman) get some experience. We'll possibly get better athletes.

"But it's hard to replace a guy like Shaq Wilson. He was a steady guy and you could always count on him doing what he was supposed to do and being where he was supposed to be all the time. Those guys have some big shoes to fill. They definitely have the ability and mental capacity to do it."

Cedrick Cooper, a redshirt sophomore, didn't practice a single snap in the spring due to a knee injury suffered in December, but he is the projected starter at outside linebacker because of his skills and knowledge of the position.

Marcquis Roberts, sidelined for most of his first two years in the program, should be a reliable backup ahead of former tight end Kelvin Rainey, who experienced the customary ups and downs that come when switching sides of the ball. But Will was a new position for Roberts, as well, since he was a spur the past two seasons.

Yet, Ward wouldn't be startled if a hard-fought position battle between Cooper and Roberts erupted in August.

"It's hard to put Roberts in front of Cooper because Coop has been at the position a lot longer," Ward said. "When we start fall camp, if Cooper is full-speed, they'll both be right there together and we'll see who wins the battle."

Cooper's absence led to Roberts and Rainey taking the bulk of the practice snaps at Will.

"Marcquis separated himself from Kelvin Rainey a little bit," Ward said. "Kelvin definitely has a lot of ability and is really good defending the pass, but he has to get physical against the run. He got better at it, but he is behind Marcquis as far as the physical requirements at the position. Marcquis had a good spring. Kelvin got better, but Marcquis is probably a little ahead of him."

Roberts impressed the coaches with his willingness to stick his helmet into the pile and play physically, a must since the Will spot is often asked to help in run defense and take on SEC offensive linemen.

"He played a spur-type position in high school, but playing inside the box is a little different," Ward said. "He started to improve and see his keys better. He has to continue studying video of himself this summer so when we start fall camp, he won't have to start over. If he can pick up where he left off, he'll be a viable contender for that position going into the North Carolina game."

Rainey struggled with reading certain keys and getting past blocks throughout the spring, which is why he will be third on the Will depth chart when preseason camp begins.

"He got a little better in the spring, but he still has a ways to go," Ward said. "If he continues to grow, he has the athletic ability and he has shown he is not afraid to make tackles in space. But he hasn't played in the box in a long time, so it was tough for him to see everything you need to see with your eyes."

Sharrod Golightly and Jordan Diggs engaged in an energetic battle throughout the spring for the starting job at spur, with the former taking a slight lead because of his limited playing experience. But Diggs is certainly capable of erasing the gap when preseason camp starts.

"Sharrod separated himself from Diggs, but it's still going to be a battle in fall camp," Ward said. "If we had to pencil in a starter today, it would be Sharrod. He took a couple of steps to show he wanted the position. Sharrod will have a vital role in our defense this year. Diggs is still learning the position. Jordan has the potential to be a very good spur here. We'll just let him continue challenging for the position. Hopefully, we'll have two good spurs and rotate them and let them play."

Regardless of who plays the position, the spur spot will more closely resemble Antonio Allen in 2010 and 2011 rather than DeVonte Holloman, a physical specimen at 240 pounds, in 2012. Translation: Look for the spurs to be utilized more in pass coverage than in run support this upcoming season.

"We used DeVonte a little differently than we used Antonio," Ward said. "And we'll use (Golightly and Diggs) differently than how we used DeVonte. But it will depend on how the game is going."

The lack of depth at linebacker (only six players participated in spring practice) means Ward and Botkin might turn to one or more of the incoming freshmen to fill the void on the depth chart. USC signed four promising prospects in February (Larenz Bryant, David Johnson, Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton) and one or more of them could see action, particularly on special teams.

Larenz Bryant (Fr.)
Mohamed Camara (Fr., spur)
Cedrick Cooper (RSo.)
Jordan Diggs (RFr., spur)
Sharrod Golightly (RJr., spur)
T.J. Holloman (RFr.)
David Johnson (Fr.)
Kaiwan Lewis (So.)
Skai Moore (Fr.)
Kelvin Rainey (RFr.)
Marcquis Roberts (RSo.)
Jonathan Walton (Fr.)

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