As has been well documented, linebacker is likely the single biggest area of concern on next year's team. On the one hand, Carolina has a lot of offensive weapons coming back. On the defensive side of the ball, Jadeveon Clowney gives us the nation's best defender and a devastating pass rush, and the secondary, despite a few questions, should also be solid with productive returning players such as Victor Hampton, Jimmy Legree, and Brison Williams. However, no player on the depth chart at the two linebacker slots has played a significant snap, and while Sharrod Golightly got occasional playing time in specialty packages in 2011, there are doubts that he's a longtime answer as the starting spur. The Gamecocks may very well sink or swim defensively based on whether they can find capable players to man these important positions.
The good news is that positive reports are already coming out of camp regarding Kelvin Rainey. A RS frosh, Rainey played both TE and LB in high school and looked like he might end up at TE at Carolina. However, with the current logjam at TE with Rory Anderson, Jerrell Adams, and Drew Owens coupled with our needs at LB, Rainey is now working on the defensive side of the ball. He's done well so far, showing off his TE hands by notching some impressive interceptions in the drills. His HS tape also shows a strong, athletic player who is capable of beating blocks and getting to the ball carrier in pursuit. He's now up to close to 230 lbs but plays like a smaller player. With development, he looks like someone who could be a good LB for us. The question is whether we can get him ready in time to be that player this fall. He'll be competing for playing time at the Will position, and could help us by providing an alternative other than Cedrick Cooper, who was slated for the starting spot prior to suffering a knee injury in bowl practice.
The other players to keep a close eye on this spring are Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman, who are competing for the starting spot at Mike. Lewis currently sits atop the depth chart. Holloman is the more athletic player of the two, a guy who played wildcat QB in high school and is known for being able to get around the field well. Lewis, though, is a bit more of a prototypical inside guy for our defense. He's a bit bigger and stronger than Holloman.
At spur, the competition should be fierce between Golightly and Jordan Diggs. Golightly is currently slated as the starter, but there is some concern that he's a bit limited athletically. Although a solid contributor on special teams, Golightly has not made a big impact on defense other than on a memorable tackle-for-a-loss against Florida in a goal-line situation. At 179, he's a little smaller than one would like at a hybrid LB/DB position that is expected to play a major tackling role. DeVonte Holloman played the position last year around 240. That kind of size isn't necessary to the position, though; Antonio Allen was oftentimes more disruptive at the position at around 200. Enter Diggs, who, at a mobile 197, comes into the spring with less experience than Golightly but a bit more athletic upside. Diggs is really the prototypical kind of guy we want at the position, so hopefully he comes into his own.
Overall, while the extreme youth at both true LB slots is a cause for concern, the players we have taking over have a lot of potential, and as we get closer to the summer, I'm getting more optimistic about our chances here. After all, although we were experienced at the position last year, Shaq Wilson was the only one of the group who was a true difference-maker, and we really haven't had a great LB here since Eric Norwood and Jasper Brinkley. I could see us moving on without too much of a dropoff at the position if a couple of the new guys step up. Spur may be a bit different. Holloman leaves big shoes to fill at the position. Golightly probably can't fill them, and Diggs has a lot of work to do if he wants to do so. In any event, all of these are positions to keep a close eye on.