Sharrod Golightly #9 and Kaiwan Lewis #8 team up on a tackle. (Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports)
Ron Aiken, GamecockCentral.com
Through three games, South Carolina's linebacking corps has featured the same three starters - Kaiwan Lewis at Mike (middle) linebacker, Marquis Roberts at Will (weakside) linebacker, and Sharrod Golightly at spur.
That's about the only thing that hasn't changed, however, as concerns about assignments and a healthy rotation of players have significant roles for freshmen backups such as Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton and, in the past two weeks, some shifting of positions to counter weaknesses, notably freshman Larenz Bryant to Spur and, just yesterday, sophomore Cedrick Cooper to Mike.
After a month of fall camp and now in the fourth week of the season, it seems like the pegs still aren't all in the right holes in a unit that returned zero starters from the year before and is the very definition of young and inexperienced.
"Consistency is the biggest thing with young linebackers," Botkin said. "Just being consistent in what you're doing.
"The first half (against Vanderbilt) I thought they did a really good job, the second half they started getting their eyes in the wrong place when we started watching film and kind of looked at the wrong keys. You can't do that. You've got to be more consistent all the time, and that's all of them."
Injuries have affected the group from the beginning. Projected starting Will linebacker Cooper, in his third year in the program, appeared a lock to anchor that position. But after injuring his elbow in the first week of fall camp, he missed the next month and only now is back to where he's able to contribute significantly, which he'll do at a new position (Mike). His loss meant the elevation of Marquis Roberts to starter, which he's handled admirably as he's second on the team in tackles with 18, including two for a loss.
"Ced Cooper isn't 100 percent, but he's pretty dang close," Botkin said. "He lost a month. Out here, not doing that for a month, where his eyes are and what he's doing and where he's supposed to line up, how he's supposed to fit in, he's just behind the other guys right now. We're trying to get him in at Mike, and a little bit at Will, so we'll try to double-train him a little bit to get him out on the field."
Just as Cooper got healthy, freshman Jonathan Walton, who was in the rotation at Mike linebacker, injured his shoulder on the very first kickoff of the Vanderbilt game and missed practice Tuesday. He's going to be held out by the trainers likely today (Wednesday), but is expected to return Thursday and be ready for Central Florida.
"It's a day-by-day deal," Botkin said of the shifting roles of the linebacking corps. "We're trying to see how everybody can do, and if somebody can beat them out, I tell them every day if you can beat the guy out in front of you, beat them out. What you do at practice determines whether you play or don't play."
Besides shifting bodies around, Botkin said the coaches also shifted some schemes around after the Georgia game to better position his young linebackers for success.
"In the Georgia game, it was one guy here, two guys here the next play," Botkin said. "We went back to the basics about just controlling your gap up front, the linebackers being where you're supposed to be, fit, you don't have to make every play, turning it back inside, and some of those guys were not doing that.
"So we went back to basics a little bit and started doing that versus Vanderbilt, just getting back to fundamentals and good technique football that they had kind of gotten away from."
One positive for Botkin is that with a bye week, he should have his full complement of linebackers healthy for Central Florida for the first time since the opening week of camp.
"We'll have everybody out and ready to go," Botkin said.