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The strength of the defense: a look at South Carolina’s linebackers

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NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Miami vs South Carolina Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

While the South Carolina defense hasn’t exactly been a dominant force over the past two seasons, there has been one constant throughout the turmoil: the steadiness of the Gamecocks’ linebackers. Question marks linger across the board defensively heading into 2016, but linebacker is one of the only spots where you can find talent, experience and, most importantly, depth. Here’s a closer look at who will be patrolling the middle of the field for the Gamecocks this season and what to expect from each of them.

The proven commodities: Jonathan Walton and T.J. Holloman

There weren’t a ton of bright spots during the 2015 campaign for South Carolina, but Walton and Holloman were two of the guys that stepped up and tried to hold it all together. Walton played in all 12 games last year - with six starts to his credit - and was listed as the co-starter at MIKE linebacker as we entered fall camp. He’s made over 100 tackles in his career, is a tireless worker and has shown the versatility to play at several different linebacker spots (as well as fullback on offense in the Tennessee game.) Holloman was someone that Shawn Elliott and Co. turned to once they took over in 2015 to help lead the defense. He was a 2015 team captain who has 140 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles during his career. His 36 games of experience will be relied on heavily this fall as he is slotted as co-starter at Mike linebacker, as well as the starter at WILL linebacker entering fall practice. Both of these guys are battle-tested senior leaders who will have to be at their best for South Carolina to be successful in 2016.

The budding star: Bryson Allen-Williams

Bryson Allen-Williams’ first two years in the South Carolina program have been hit and miss. There were moments when he was made to play out of position and struggled, but then there were moments when he would show flashes of what he was capable of.

One thing has always been unquestioned with BAW: his talent. He arrived on campus as a heralded prospect; one who had loudly and proudly recruited other players to join him at South Carolina. Though he has just scratched the surface of his potential thus far, those within the program are sky-high about what kind of performance he could have in 2016. In a new system where he has been penciled in as the starter at the SAM spot since spring ball, look for BAW to finally have the chance to put his athleticism and instincts to use at his natural position. Some people believe he is set to have an All-SEC type of junior year.

The guy with one last chance: Larenz Bryant

Much like BAW, Bryant came to Columbia in 2012 as a heralded recruit. And while has has been a solid contributor on special teams and played in 34 games over the course of his career, he claims just one start heading into his final season in Garnet and Black. That being said, Bryant is currently listed as the co-starter at the WILL spot along with T.J. Holloman and is a prime example of a guy who has the raw talent that, hopefully, this new staff can bring out in his senior year. Look for Bryant to see the field much more in 2016, likely from the opening kickoff.

The guy who’s ahead of schedule: Sherrod Pittman

Pittman was a coveted South Florida recruit that South Carolina landed during the 2014 cycle, who suffered a broken leg during his senior year of high school. Due to his injury, Pittman spent all of his freshman season in Columbia rehabbing his leg, but has now fully recovered and come on strong at the start of his redshirt freshman year. He has been one of the early standouts through the first few days of fall camp and has impressed the coaches with his attitude and aggressiveness on the field. While he likely won’t start (at least not right away), expect Pittman to be in the rotation and play quite a bit, setting himself up nicely for a starting role in 2017 and beyond.

The freshman: T.J. Brunson

You can’t count out Brunson getting some playing time during his first year on campus, especially when you consider his talent. Make no mistake, Will Muschamp knew just how important of a piece Brunson was for South Carolina, as evidenced by him visiting T.J. only hours after his introductory press conference back in December. And while he may or may not play a ton this year, it is not outside the realm of possibility that he could work his way into a spot in the rotation by season’s end.

Outlook

Losing Skai Moore hurts. We all know it, and it’s unfortunate, but if there was one position on the team where South Carolina may have been able to survive that kind of loss, it was at linebacker. On a team hurting for depth and talent pretty much everywhere at this point, linebacker should be a solid starting point for the 2016 defense to build on. Granted, we said that last year as well, but, keep in mind, we have new coaches and a new (read: “not totally inept”) defensive scheme, which will put players like BAW and Bryant, who have natural ability, in a better position to make plays and impact the game. A breakout season from BAW, solid contributions from guys like Bryant and Pittman, and continued steady, solid play from Holloman and Walton would make for a very good unit and be just what the doctor ordered for the Gamecock defense in 2016.