This post continues our unit-by-unit examination of USC football coming out of 2012 spring practice. On offense, we've taken a look at the Quarterbacks and the Offensive Line, while on "D" we've checked out the Defensive Line, Cornerbacks and Spurs and Safeties - plus we've done a wrap-up on the Special Teams. Today, we're staying on the defensive side of the ball by turning our attention to the linebacker corps.
Last Season (and Before)
When Ellis Johnson was named the Gamecock's DC/LB coach in 2008, it seemed like a match made in heaven for the future prospects of USC linebackers. After all, E.J.'s resume boasted two very successful stints at Alabama as the Tide's OLB coach during 1990-1993 (including the '92 National Championship team) and as DC/OLB coach for 1997-2000 (including the '99 SEC Western Division Championship squad). During his tenure at Clemson as DC in '95 and '96, Johnson had helped reel in All-American and future NFL first-rounder LB Anthony Simmons, and also coached NFL 2nd rounder LB Patrick Sapp. Even at Mississippi State, where he served as the DC/LB coach from '04-'07 during the lean Sly Croome years, three Bulldog linebackers (Quinton Culberson, Jamar Chaney and K.J. Wright) would go on to make NFL rosters.
Considering the fact that when he arrived in Columbia Johnson inherited Eric Norwood and Jasper Brinkley the sky was the limit. E.J. proceeded to coach Norwood to consensus first-team All-SEC honors in 'both 08-'09 [and a consensus All-America selection in '09] and Brinkley to second-team All-SEC recognition in '08 after coming off an injury year. Thus, USC fans could be forgiven for believing that we'd begin seeing a steady progression of top-flight LBs enrolling at Carolina. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to work out that way. Since Eric Norwood left Carolina, our linebacker play has been competent but mostly overshadowed by the stars on the defensive line and in the secondary. For example, Josh Dickerson was fifth on the team in total tackles in 2010, while Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson were third and fourth, respectively, in tackles for 2011. But neither Dickerson nor Paulk received NFL draft consideration, and none of them earned pre-season or post-season All-SEC accolades.
So far, there has been very little pre-sason buzz about USC's linebackers going in 2012, either. Most of the national writers don't even mention them. So what happened? And what can we expect going forward? Read more after the Jump!
In terms of explanation for why the LBs have not dazzled of late at Williams-Brice stadium, injuries are a big part of the equation - particularly to Paulk (ACL) and Wilson (hamstring) who missed both of their respective junior seasons and neither seemed ever fully to regain their earlier form. Likewise, Reggie Bowens has had knee issues and two shoulder surgeries, and Senior Quin Smith has had off-season back surgery. Sometimes a team is just snakebit with injuries at a certain position, and that certainly seems to have been our experience at LB the last couple of seasons.
In-state recruiting whiffs are also partly to blame - notably losing out on 4 star Justin Parker of Beaufort and 4 star Lateek Townsend of Bennettsville - both to CU - in 2010 and 2011 respectively (when we thought we were in the lead for both). We also had to pull back on 4 star Dexter Staley of Williston-Elko who was a non-qualifier in '11 (and is currently enrolled in JUCO in Geogia). Development has also been a bit of an issue: e.g., our big LB recruiting catch in '10 - 4 star JUCO transfer Qua Gilchrist - never met expectations. Poor-tackling and over-pursuit has also plagued us a bit, and we all saw how Rodney Paulk had a penchant for blown assignments sometimes in pass defense. All of these recruiting/teaching issues clearly fell on the staff.
If anything, however, the main reason why the linebackers seem to have been overlooked these last two years was primarily due to EJ's philosophy in running the 4-2-5 base defense. First and foremost, in USC's interpretation of the 4-2-5, the Spur (hybrid LB/Safety) is a far-more important player than either the MIKE (Middle/Insider LB) or the WILL (Outside/Weakside LB); consequently, more of USC's recruiting and coaching eggs have gone into scouting, signing and developing Spurs than the traditional LB position. Additionally, Johnson favored a speed kills mentality; thus, to the extent we were unable to compete with more entrenched programs in landing the handful of "big and fast" LB prospects each recruiting class, we were more interested in "fast" than "big," and willing to "termite up" - as a buddy of mine likes to say - by recruiting safeties with the anticipation that they would grow into LB, or small DE who would morph into LB if they didn't grow.
While this philosophy was designed to pay-off against the spread offenses we faced, the downside was that a smaller LB was going to struggle against the run when he's blocked one-on-one by a big TE or a DL - not to mention being at a slight disadvantage when matching up mano-y-mano with some of the fireplug- RBs that infest the SEC swamp these days. It's hard to fault E.J. for his willingness to trade size for speed when he couldn't have both in a LB - after all, the 2011 edition of USC's "D" was third in overall defense in the NCAA, so he was clearly doing something right. And, as stated above, both Paulk and Wilson turned in solid 2011 campaigns with 57 and 52 tackles each [with Wilson registering 5 tackles for loss, 2 pass break-ups and 1 fumble recovery for good measure]. We weren't asking the LBs to win games for us - just not lose them, and the LBs dutifully obliged us by playing well if not brilliantly.
Key Personnel Losses from 2011
Rodney Paulk from Columbia was our only graduating senior LB - he signed a CFL free agency contract with the BC Lions last week.
The only other departure from the LB corps was Freshman Angelo Watley, a redshirt reserve from Lawrenceville, Georgia, who has been indefinitely suspended following his arrest in February for grand larceny, and is not expected ever to rejoin the team.
2012 Spring Practice
The biggest news regarding the linebackers going into 2012 spring practice was obviously the departure of Ellis Johnson to Southern Miss and the subsequent hiring of former Arkansas player and coach Kirk Botkin as the new, dedicated LB position coach.
Throughout the spring, Botkin has exemplified a "back to basics" approach with an emphasis on technique and good decision-making. Even though he has the luxury of no less than four senior LBs with significant p.t. under their belts, Botkin has followed Coach Spurrier's dictum in paying particular attention to developing the younger LBs on the squad during the spring. Fortunately, USC made it through spring drills with no significant injuries to the linebackers.
Both Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward and the HBC heaped praise on Botkin for the linebackers' improved ball-hawking in the Spring Game. While fundamentals were the focus in this February and March practices, look for Botkin to coach the LBs to be more aggressive in August camp, and for Zo Ward to unleash them in more exotic blitzing schemes than Johnson was comfortable with the last few years.
Projected Starters and Top Back-ups
MLB/ILB Starter - Reginald Bowens - #34 (RS Senior, 6'3", 254, Holly Springs, NC). Reggie spent last season as the WILL - starting 8 games and registering 44 tackles - but he has the right combination of height, weight and speed (4.5/40) to play in the middle. Thus, most everyone predicts he will be the starting MIKE when the season rolls around - it's just naturally a better fit for him (even though his speed makes him a legit WILL starter too). The staff certainly seems to be headed towards moving Bowens inside - he spent the spring cross-training with Shaq Wilson so that either is capable of starting at WILL or MIKE. Coach Ward has expressed a desire to have them on the field at the same time, and the description you hear most about their respective skill levels is "interchangeable." With that being the case, why wouldn't you have your biggest body in the middle to stop the run? Bowens has definitely been jinxed on the injury front during his USC career - having missed his freshman ('08) and junior seasons ('10) with shoulder injuries, along with a significant knee injury that sidelined him for half his sophomore campaign ('09). His injury bug may be the primary reason why the coaches don't want to take Wilson totally out of the MIKE discussion just yet, and Reggie's missed gameday opportunities have definitely held him back some in terms of player development and snap reads. Notwithstanding all the lost time, Bowens had a break-through 2011 campaign as a RS Junior - playing injury-free all season. By all accounts has now "gotten"' the system and is able to make the pre-snap reads required in the MIKE position. The staff rave about Reggie's physicality and speed. He is one of those guys that has the potential to explode out of nowhere for a monster 2012 season.
OLB Starter - Shaq Wilson - # 54 (Senior, 5'11", 224, Jacksonville, FL). In a unit filled with seniors, Shaq Wilson is the most veteran LB of the bunch - having seen action in 40 games with 20 career starts and 160 career tackles. He missed almost the entire 2010 season with a torn hamstring after having led the team in '09 with 85 tackles (47 solo) and four 10+ tackle games that year. Shaq was still a little limited from the hammy last year ('11), but did start 8 games at MIKE and saw action in all 13 tilts. Through the spring, it looks like he's made a full recovery and is ready to be a full-time starter for the '12 campaign. While most services list Shaq as the MIKE starter, the general consensus is that he's best-suited to play at WILL and he may start there in place of Damario Jeffery While some of the younger OLB might be more pure athletes, what Wilson brings to the table is experience, coachability and leadership both on the field and in the locker room. Even if a tad undersized, however, Wilson has proven that he can play well in the middle, so if Bowens is injured ... or if Damario plays well enough at OLB to secure the starter's spot ... then the staff probably won't hesitate to switch Shaq back to MIKE. Also look for Coach Ward to use Wilson as a blitzer more than EJ felt comfortable doing the last two seasons (though I don't think you'll ever see Wilson line up as an end a la Eric Norwood).
OLB Backup- Damario Jeffery - #33 (Senior, 6'4", 233, Columbia, SC). Damario spent his first three seasons at Carolina as the back-up Spur - the last two behind two-year starter Antonio Allen - but the coaches felt he's a better fit at OLB, and by all accounts he made a smooth transition to the more traditional LB role this spring. I wouldn't be surprised if early on he plays a little Spur behind DeVonte Holloman during Sharrod Golightly's two game suspension (depending on how well true FR Spur Jordan Diggs does in pre-season camp), but over the long-haul the staff sees him as a good fit at weakside LB and he has to be happy with the opportunity to see more p.t. From media and insider reports, it would appear that Jeffery has positioned himself as one of the top three LBs (with Bowens and Wilson); you may even see all three on the field from time to time depending on what looks Zo Ward wants to bring. Damario will bring some nice pass-defense skills to his new position, but has the size to be a good run-stopper.
OLB Backup -Quin Smith - #26 (Senior, 6'1", 239, Lenoir, NC). Yet another veteran guy, Smith split time at WILL in '11 with Bowens - starting 4 games and seeing action in 12 contests with 48 tackles (8 against UGA) - which was very much in keeping with his '10 season where he recorded 49 tackles in 14 games. He is expected to reprise that role again in 2012. Quin had off-season back surgery which sidelined him for the first half of spring drills - but he was back for the second-half and by all accounts looked good in both practices and scrimmages. Coach Ward, however, thinks Quin is still a bit behind the curve at this point because of the missed practice time. I'm willing to bet Whammy's trying to motivate him a bit, and that the staff views him as a steady back-up; you'll be seeing his number a lot on the field for his last season wearing the garnet and black.
MLB/ILB Backup - Mason Harris - #34 (RS Freshman, 6'3", 210, Ft. Oglethorpe, GA). Mason is going to see action as the MIKE, but the concern with him is that he doesn't yet have enough meat on his bones to be an every down MIKE in 2012 - even after wearing the redshirt in '11. "Yet" seems to be the operative word. The coaches have will make sure he gets enough opportunities to get additional experience this year while grooming him to take a bigger role in '13 and '14.
OLB Backup -Cedric Cooper - #18 (RS Freshman, 6'2", 215, Lithonia,GA). Spring drills are definitely the time to let the younger players shine, and not many of the youngsters had a better camp than Ced Cooper. The coaches seemed pleased with his athleticism and physicality, and - as with Harris - they're impressed enough to make sure that he sees the field in 2012 in order to gain experience for the future. With all the veterans in front of him, however, he's probably not going to break into the starting rotation, and the general consensus seems to be that he may have the biggest opportunity to contribute this season on the special teams coverage units.
Other Reserves and Incoming Freshmen
Chaun Gresham of Auburn,GA (RS Jr., 6'2", 266) will add some practice and injury depth to the LB unit (as a bit of a hybrid DE-LB), but is expected mostly to see action as a special teams player in 2012 as he did in '11 (where he was listed on the roster as a TE).
Two more LBs will report in August - Kaiwan Lewis of Hammerton, NJ (6'2", 227) and T.J. Holloman of Atlanta (6'2", 215), both of who are generally considered very good three-star recruits. With all the veteran depth ahead of them, however, I'd be surprised if both did not redshirt unless one of them makes a huge splash in August (and even then he'd likely be mostly a special teams guy).
Darian Sims of Goose Creek (RS Fr., 6'2", 250), Darrius Williams of Belton, SC (RS FR, 6'2", 230) and Newberry College transfer Marcus Lyerly (Soph., 5'11", 225) are listed as reserve linebackers coming out of the Spring.
Toquavious "Qua" Gilchist of Abbeville (RS Sr., 6'1", 245) never transitioned well from JUCO to SEC play, and was limited during the spring with a knee injury. He has been re-assigned to the offense as a FB - which is is probably a good move for him since he was a talented h.s. ball carrier and likely would never see the field as a LB.
Edward Muldrow of Snellville, GA (RS Fr., 6'3", 183) was part of the LB conversation pre-spring, but he has been re-positioned over to back-up Safety which seems like a good move in light of his weight
What can we expect?
The LBs are going to benefit from the stand-out DL almost as much as the defensive backs, but this is really a season for them to kick it up a notch. Wilson is going to be a steady contributor; the question marks are whether Bowens and Jeffery can be every-down, every-Saturday LBs. My instinct is that one of them (probably Bowens) will emerge as a bit of a star. I think the real impact, however, is going to be Kirk Botkin's undivided attention on this group. Next season (2013) is going to be rougher when we lose four guys off this unit to graduation.