It's not that South Carolina's linebackers didn't have a good 2011. It's that their solid performances through a record-breaking season were overshadowed by the spectacular plays of their defensive teammates.
On a unit that finished ranked third nationally and sent two first-round draft picks and two other players to the NFL, Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens finished fourth and 10th, respectively, on the team's tackle chart. Grouped among them were fellow linebackers Rodney Paulk (third) and Quin Smith (eighth).
The entire defense was a force in the SEC, allowing a scant 267.7 yards and 18.4 points per game, but it was the contributions of Melvin Ingram, Stephon Gilmore and Antonio Allen that received the most publicity. Paulk had 57 tackles, Wilson was just behind with 52 and Bowens had 44.
Ingram, Gilmore, Allen and Paulk were leaving, so Wilson and Bowens knew that their play in 2012 was vital to USC's continued success. A pair of fifth-year seniors, the pair was going to be relied on in 2012 as the crucial bridge between a thin-in-the-middle defensive line and a secondary stocked with inexperience.
It's only been two games. There are at least 10 and as many as 12 to go.
But the No. 8 Gamecocks, and especially Wilson and Bowens, could be feeling much worse.
Through USC's first two games, Wilson (10) and Bowens (eight) are tied for second and are in third, respectively, in team tackles. Wilson has two interceptions and Bowens has forced and recovered a fumble as well.
The only two true linebackers in the Gamecocks' scheme, they've managed to have two good games against pass-first teams. Another passing offense, UAB, is coming to Columbia on Saturday and the two are simply hoping to keep themselves at the same level as the offense they're facing - flying high.
"I can get way better," Wilson said after practice on Tuesday. "I know I can do way better on a lot of things. Coach (Kirk) Botkin is still harping on me about stuff, using my hands and just being good at everything I do. I need to focus on the little things like alignment, my eyes and my technique."
"It feels good, I'm just working off last year, not really missing any games because of injuries," Bowens said. "I feel because of my conditioning, I'm getting better every week. I just think it's my last year so I've got to give it my all."
Bowens has to be feeling good about his season, after it seemed that "the most talented linebacker we have" (former defensive head Ellis Johnson) would never be able to get on the field, or stay on it if he did. A succession of injuries held him to 15 games in three seasons, mostly on special teams, but 2011 had him on the field for every contest, and starting eight.
Wilson can relate. In 2009, he led the Gamecocks in tackles but a severely pulled hamstring limited him to one game in 2010. In 2011, Wilson mimicked Bowens by starting eight of his 13 games, and had a good year, but the two were often overshadowed.
So far this year, they're standing out. While Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor likely will receive the most headlines this year, Wilson and Bowens are happy to be back of the spotlight, still making plays.
The two are in charge of the signals for each defensive snap, trading the responsibility. "We're just trying to help each other out in our scheme," Bowens said. "It's mainly me, but if I call it wrong, he'll correct me, or if Shaq gets to it first, he'll call it."
It's worked. USC's yards-allowed average is very inflated due to East Carolina posting 403 yards, but yards aren't points. The Gamecocks only allowed 10 to the Pirates, to follow the 13 allowed to Vanderbilt.
Pass or run, USC is prepared to stop whatever faces it, led by the two in the middle.
"The first thing a linebacker has to do is stop the run," Wilson said. "First, we try to stop the run and react to the pass. We've got to be good and get out on the drops and get some depth. Get lined up on the wide receivers if we need to and be able to cover.
"We just need to do the same thing we do every week. We're not taking anybody lightly."
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