South Carolina junior linebacker Kaiwan Lewis remembers how little faith the media placed in the Gamecocks' linebacker corps leading up to last season, and he also recalls how the inexperienced group struggled early on to prove its doubters wrong.
USC's linebackers, none of whom had logged a start before 2013, faltered in their first few games last year, looking lost at times in the 27-10 season-opening victory over North Carolina before falling flat on their collective face against Georgia.
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Using mostly slant patterns over the middle and off-tackle rushes with star tailback Todd Gurley, Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs offense exploited South Carolina's youth at linebacker to the tune of 536 yards of total offense and a 41-30 victory in Athens.
But after the early struggles and growing pains, the linebackers began to figure it out, learning how to play their positions as individuals first and then as part of a larger unit as the season progressed.
"I never really truly understood what experience would be for us until we had to go out there and finally gain our experience and gain our confidence," Lewis said Friday at the Pigskin Poets event at the Richland County Library. "I feel like, as the season went on, we grew up."
Another step for the corps was learning to work with the defensive line and secondary to gel within the larger USC defense, something they appeared to master down the stretch.
By the season's end, the linebackers were picking up the slack the other defensive units had carried for them early on. Four linebackers finished among USC's top six tacklers, and true freshman Skai Moore led the team with 56 tackles.
And as the group "grew up," it began making big plays of its own, rather than relying on names like Jadeveon Clowney and Victor Hampton to turn the tide of games.
South Carolina forced 13 turnovers over the course of its final three games in 2013, and the linebackers accounted for nine of them, a trend Lewis would like to see continue into the upcoming season.
"I'm excited about what we're going to bring to the table as linebackers this year," said Lewis, a native of Pleasantville, New Jersey. "We started off as a weakness last year, so this year it will be fun to keep the ball rolling from that bowl game, the Clemson game, just keep it rolling."
Lewis said those early struggles were difficult at the time, but helped make the linebackers - all of whom will return this season - a more cohesive unit.
"Throughout the season, we all had to be together as a linebacker corps because the chips were kind of stacked against us," said Lewis, who ranked third on the squad with 54 tackles last year. "We had a terrible Georgia game as a linebacker corps. That kind of stuck with us for a while throughout that season.
"We just felt like we had to stick together and build each other up each week, and I feel like that's what we've done. We're excited for things to come."
Lewis was listed as the starter at the Mike linebacker position, where he will line up alongside Will linebacker Skai Moore and Spur linebacker Sharrod Golightly.
The 6-foot-0, 228-pounder was limited in spring practice after undergoing minor left knee surgery, but expects he and the linebackers will get off to a faster start this season with a year of experience under their belts.
With South Carolina looking thin at cornerback and needing to replace three starters on the defensive line, the linebackers will probably be the defense's strongest group a year after being the weak link.
Of course, that won't change their mentality, Lewis said.
"We still feel like underdogs, so every day, we're grinding and working hard to be the best linebacker corps in the country," Lewis said. "I feel like potential doesn't mean nothing, but we have the potential to be just that, so we're working every day to get better and try to become the No. 1 linebacker corps in the nation."
USC also added some talent to the mix at linebacker in Bryson Allen-Williams, a 6-foot-1, 231-pound freshman and four-star prospect who could see significant playing time this fall.
"Bryson Allen-Williams - his focus right now is, he's coming in and trying to play," Lewis said. "That should be the goal of every freshman. He's eager to learn, and that's what's great about him."
Lewis said he's looking forward to getting into camp and working with USC linebackers coach Kirk Botkin, whom he credits with much of USC's growth at linebacker last season.
"I think he's done a great job," Lewis said. "When camp starts, he takes it from step one. He makes it seem as though we're all freshmen, and we start in the playbook from day one of the basics. And we get better, and we get back to the basics when we're working physically in practice - just learning how to tackle, learning about your first two steps, things like that.
"He definitely takes us and holds our hand to a standpoint of just getting us better day in and day out. He tries to keep it exciting and just lets us know that we've got to get better each day and just make each day our best day."