By Ron Aiken, GamecockCentral.com
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It's stretch time at the Proving Grounds on Bluff Road, and the PA system is blasting a hip-hop song while the players sit with their right legs crossed over their left, getting their backs and shoulders ready for the work to come.
Walking around them, Kirk Botkin, a country boy from Baytown, Texas, just across the mouth of Galveston bay from Houston, is bobbing his head and dancing. No one on the field looks happier to be there, in the moment, at practice.
Because probably, no one is.
"I always try to have fun," said Botkin, a four-year NFL veteran with the Patriots, Saints and Steelers and two-time All-SEC tight end at Arkansas who is in his second year with the Gamecocks. "I still wish I could play a little bit. I've always been a guy who loved practice, who loved games, who loves competing at anything.
"Monopoly, tiddlywinks, basketball, I wanna beat ya. I love going out there and teaching these young guys and watching them grow and do things they couldn't do before and watch them do it, I get a real enjoyment out of that. I just love football and competition. It's fun."
It may seem odd that Botkin is having the time of his life when no assistant coach is under more scrutiny this preseason than his linebacking corps. Maybe it's because he knows something no one else does, or maybe he just thrives under pressure.
"Put the bullseye on us," Botkin says of the question marks that surround his inexperienced group, one that looks to replace all three starters at Will, Mike and Spur. "Bring it on. That don't bother us. If somebody thinks we're a weakness, well heck, that just motivates us and challenges us even more. Bring it on. That doesn't scare us. We're happy to have it.
"I have a good room of guys who are competitors, which helps everyone get better. When you have some young guys flying around, it's exciting. I'll get on their butt, but it's because I want them to be good. They should want to be good and they all are, and I can't say enough good things about them wanting to be the best, them wanting to compete."
There's no question surrounding the depth he has to work with - even losing Kelvin Rainey back to tight end, Botkin has 11 scholarship bodies to work with: Sharrod Golightly, Skai Moore, T.J. Holloman, Cedrick Cooper, Marquis Roberts, Kaiwan Lewis, Larenz Bryant, Kyle Fleetwood, Jonathan Walton, Jordan Diggs and David Johnson. A 12th, Mohamed Camara, has not yet enrolled in school due to eligibility issues, and two more bodies are available with walk-ons Kyle Morini (who injured his elbow Tuesday night) and Benedict transfer James King.
The cupboard, as they say, is full, and only one - Golightly, a junior - is an upperclassman.
"I've got a bunch of very good kids that do whatever you ask and are eager to learn day in and day out," Botkin said. "It's fun being around them. It's a fun young good group of guys who are going to be special. The three young freshmen, Skai Moore, Larenz Bryant and Jonathan Walton, are really sharp kids and really doing a good job out there. It's been very impressive watching them fly around."
With Lewis penciled in at middle linebacker and Cooper - providing his elbow recovers in time - penciled in at weakside linebacker, the biggest battle of camp looks to be at the spur position, where Fleetwood was just recruited from the safety group to add depth.
"We're really pleased with the competition at spur," Botkin said. :Out of spring, Golightly was the starter and Diggs is right behind him, pushing him. That competition, they know they can't have a play off here, a play off there.
"One of them is going to separate from the other. If you have too many bad days, one is going to get in front of you, so you better be pushing. Kylw is very good. He's still swimming a bit learning some new terminology and technique stuff that he hasn't done before, but he's moving around real well and we're excited to have him.
"We'll see who can play big boy football and who is ready to play with the installation."
Botkin said the key to success for all the young linebackers is to relax, understand they're not on an island and go fly to the football.
"They need to understand they're not the only guy on the field out there," Botkin said. "They need to see the big picture, that they don't have to make every play.
"It's not like high school. All you have to do is know where your help is. Turn the play back to your help, contain it, make it doesn't get outside. It's pretty simple, and it should be fun for them. I think it is, at least."
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