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August 19, 2014

Meaner, more physical Holloman claims starting job

By this offseason, redshirt sophomore T.J. Holloman had grown tired of teammates and friends picking on him.

They joked that he was only a pass-coverage linebacker, that he wasn't nearly as tough or physical as he should be.

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"I didn't take it as a joke," Holloman said after practice Monday. "I took it seriously. And it drove me to want to become more physical."

So, Holloman put on 15 pounds over the offseason, bulking up to 245 pounds, weight he now uses to punish opponents in practice.

"They used to pick on me about not being as physical as I could be, and I just wanted to come out here and prove everyone wrong, that I can be physical, that I can bang with the big guys," Holloman said.

The newer, meaner version of Holloman has moved up the depth chart to beat out junior Kaiwan Lewis as the first-team Mike linebacker this preseason. Holloman started just three games last season, with Lewis starting the other 10, but linebackers coach Kirk Botkin said Holloman's new mentality has given him the edge in a close race for the starting role.

"He's gotten more physical than he was a year ago," Botkin said, adding that he pushed Holloman over the offseason to play more physically. "He's always been great in pass coverage, always been a great cover guy. But that was the one thing. He's taken that role and been a lot more physical day in and day out, and right now, he's got the starting job."

Holloman, who tied for second on the team with three interceptions last year, said he's also trying to dispel the notion that he's only a coverage linebacker. Hitting harder in practice, he said, said helped.

"Everyone's asking me what's going on with me, why I've been hitting all these guys so hard," Holloman said. "I just say I want to come here and prove everybody wrong.

"Everyone looks at me as a cover guy, but I just want to show them that I can cover and I can come up and hit also."

Holloman, who also logged 44 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack last year, says he's more of an all-around football player now, and that the move toward working with the first-team defense reflects that.

"He's one of the biggest linebackers we've got," Botkin said. "He just understands everything. He's really smart and intelligent. He can set the front. He can do a lot of things that a Mike linebacker has to do.

"He's really good in pass coverage. He's a very athletic kid, has great balls skills. But he's been a lot more physical, you know, just the pounding part of it every day coming out here."

Holloman said he expects to have some jitters for the Gamecocks' season opener against Texas A&M on Aug. 28, but that he thinks he will settle in after the first hit.

"It's what every guy wants," Holloman said. "Every guy comes here to start. Every guy comes here to get first-team reps, so that's everyone's goal. I'm just happy I'm getting the opportunity, and I'm just going to keep pushing."

A good performance could cement Holloman's hold on the starting Mike linebacker job, but his first test of the season will come against a high-powered Aggies offense.

Texas A&M topped the conference in total and scoring offense last season, but Holloman said he's not feeling pressure to prove himself against the Aggies to retain the starting job.

"I'm just going to do what I can do; that's all I can do," Holloman said. "I'll go out there and do what they ask. At the end of the day, it's (Botkin's) decision. I'll do what I can do to the best of my ability."

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