Heading into 2013, the biggest question mark for the Gamecocks was at the linebacker position. After losing everyone in their two-deep at linebacker and their starting Spur (linebacker/safety hybrid), Gamecock faithful were ready to call Flynn Bowie and his witch doctor to conjure up some experienced linebackers.
By the middle of the 2013 season, that big question mark had turned into a big surprise, and by the end of the season, that big surprise had turned into a big strength. Now, heading into 2014, the biggest strength and perhaps the deepest unit on this South Carolina team is the linebacking corps.
The biggest and most impressive surprise last season was 6-foot-2, 210 pound Will (weakside) linebacker, Skai Moore. As a freshman, he led the team in tackles with 56 and interceptions with four, including two in the Capital One Bowl victory over Wisconsin. Despite only starting four games, though he played in all 13, he earned a spot on the first-team Freshman All-SEC and the second-team Freshman All-American. As long as he keeps improving, Moore could be one of the nation’s next top linebackers.
Marcquis Roberts was the other primary Will linebacker who split time with Moore last season and collected a respectable 48 tackles. After a quality season at Will, Roberts switched to Mike (strongside) linebacker this spring, a position Lorenzo Ward thinks is a more natural fit for him.
“Marcquis is probably a natural Mike,” Ward told Gamecock Central recently. “He likes it. He likes lining up in the middle. Being a Mike, it makes his pass drops a lot easier. He really thrived at Mike linebacker this spring.” (Scott Hood).
This year, Moore’s backup will be Jonathan Walton, who switched from Mike to Will this spring. After playing mostly on special teams last season, where he accumulated eight tackles, the 6-foot, 237 pound linebacker should be primed for a good year backing up the impressive Moore.
Next to Moore and Walton, the battle at Mike is fierce. Last year, Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman split time at Mike, with Lewis getting 10 of the 13 starts and playing in 12 games while Holloman played in all 13. The duo combined for 98 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and five interceptions during the 2013 campaign.
Needless to say, these guys are good.
Kaiwan Lewis will be the presumed starter at Mike, though Holloman, who is the better in coverage, as evidenced by his three interceptions last season, will see significant action as well. Marcquis Roberts should look to fit into the mix as well.
With three very talented linebackers at Mike, each of whom gathered at least 44 tackles last season, this may very well be the deepest position on the team.
At Spur, like at Mike, there should be a fierce battle for playing time, between three excellent players.
Senior Sharrod Golightly enters the summer with his name atop the depth chart and rightfully so. Having an exceptional knowledge of the playbook and Lorenzo Ward’s scheme coupled with his 47 tackle, second-team All-SEC 2013 campaign makes him the obvious choice. He missed the early part of spring practice as he rehabbed from left knee surgery though, which did open the door for Jordan Diggs and Larenz Bryant to get some snaps.
Diggs split time with Golightly last season, played in all 13 games and accrued 25 tackles and four tackles for loss. He has about two inches and 20 pounds on Golightly and is the more physical of the two. After this spring however, where he received a “Most Improved” award, Diggs seems to have taken the step from situational run-stopping spur, to a complete player, who is expected to challenge Golightly for the starting spot.
Bryant is a ways behind Golightly in Diggs in terms of his understanding of the defense, primarily as a result of only being a true sophomore. Still, his physicality has caught the eye of Lorenzo Ward, who anticipates a big season from this unit.