South Carolina has to call on young linebackers

South Carolina has All-American Jadeveon Clowney up front and a

solid secondary behind. In the middle, though, is where the

defensive questions begin for the sixth-ranked Gamecocks.

South Carolina lost five senior linebackers from one of the

Southeastern Conference’s top defenses a year ago. Shaq Wilson,

Reggie Bowens, Quin Smith and Demario Jeffery took nearly every

snap at the position in 2012 while DeVonte Holloman was one of the

team’s top playmakers from his hybrid spot of strong


That means South Carolina will rely on a group of untested

youngsters as they look to keep opponents in check, starting with

North Carolina on Aug. 29.

”We have the right players to get this done,” said Marcquis

Roberts, a redshirt sophomore who may be the oldest of the young


The Gamecocks will find out quickly if Roberts is right. They

open against the up-tempo Tar Heels who feature an experienced

quarterback in Bryn Renner who attended the Manning Passing Camp

this offseason.

North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said the

Gamecocks talent at the linebacking position can make up for

inexperience because those young players took advantage of their

time on the field last year.

”Even though they’re not penciled in as starters a year ago,

they’re playing a significant amount of snaps,” Anderson said.

”They can fly, they’ve got tremendous team speed.”

South Carolina linebackers coach Kirk Botkin wishes he had the

same comfort. He joked before last season when he took the

assistant’s job that he’d wait to see how good he’d do when he

”didn’t have five seniors on the roster.”

That time is now.

Roberts is making a strong push to start against the Tar Heels.

Cedrick Cooper had been counted on for a spot, but has spent most

of camp on the sidelines with an elbow injury. T.J. Holloman and

Kiawan Lewis were around last season with first-year players Larenz

Bryant, Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton making a push for playing


”We’re young and we like to fly around,” Walton said. ”Our

whole linebacker corps, we’ve been working on that a lot.”

Botkin believes the young group paid attention last year from

the sidelines when Wilson led the team in tackles and Holloman had

a team best three interceptions. Botkin quizzed them hard at

meetings, he said, and made sure they soaked up as much as possible

to prepare for this season.

”They’re doing a great job paying attention and focusing in on

the tiny details of their position,” Botkin said.

When people think of South Carolina’s defense, they think mostly

of Clowney, the 6-foot-6, 274-pound lineman who had 13 sacks a year

ago. Clowney’s part of a deep and talented front line that includes

Chaz Sutton at the other end and Kelcy Quarles at defensive


The Gamecocks secondary should also be a strength with

cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree. Hampton started 12

games a year and Legree eight.

Legree’s not too worried about the inexperience at


”Of course, they’re young and they’re going to make mistakes,”

he said. ”But they’ve got talent. I trust them.”

How well the linebacker perform will go a long way to

determining if South Carolina can continue its rise in the SEC. The

Gamecocks have won 11 games in consecutive years for the first time

in school history.

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said the linebackers the

team’s brought in the past few classes are highly regarded, but

just haven’t reached the field yet.

”You’ve got guys who don’t have experience playing the game

yet, but I can tell you we’re excited about the young guys we’ve

got because they’re athletic,” Ward said. ”They all can run.

We’ll wait to see how they can tackle, but I feel confident they

are going to be good at that, too.”

Roberts was injured his first two years with the team and is

finally healthy and ready to contribute. He says he learned a lot

watching the Gamecocks former linebackers.

”All of them were great leaders and they taught me the plays,”

Roberts said. ”I plan to follow in their footsteps.”

AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to

this report.