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Ward sees Carolina linebackers leading the way in 2014

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Skai Moore

South Carolina's Skai Moore celebrates an interception against Wisconsin during late, fourth-quarter action in Orlando Fla. on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014.

COLUMBIA – With noteworthy change swirling all around the South Carolina Gamecocks’ defensive front and cornerbacks, the linebackers return virtually intact in 2014.

Lorenzo Ward senses greatness blossoming from that stability.

Five of South Carolina’s top eight tacklers during the 2013 season were linebackers, all of whom should line up for the Gamecocks again in Steve Spurrier’s 10th season as USC coach.

Sparked by rising sophomore Skai Moore (USC’s leading tackler) and rising junior Kaiwan Lewis, the linebackers rebounded strongly from the debacle at Georgia when USC surrendered a ghastly 536 total yards by performing solidly down the strength, radically transforming from a heavily criticized weakness into a heartily appreciated strength.

Based on the progress they made from early September to New Year’s Day, how far ahead could the linebackers be seven months from now when they start formulating the game plan for the August 28 season opener against Texas A&M?

“That is the exciting part about it,” Ward told Gamecock Central. “The good thing about it is we have all young guys and they’re all competitive and work hard. They push each other and they all get along well. As I’ve said before, this linebacker group has the potential to be the best linebacker group since I’ve been here (2009) as an entire group.”

Clearly, nobody represents the promising future at linebacker more than Moore, who committed to USC last February on National Signing Day and emerged as perhaps one of the top young defensive players in the SEC.

Moore (team high 56 tackles and 4 interceptions) should lock down the outside linebacker spot for at least the next two years. He might have saved his best for last, collecting five tackles and two interceptions in the Capital One Bowl, pestering Wisconsin with his cat-line quickness and nose for the football.

“We knew coming out of high school from watching his tape that Skai was a jewel,” Ward said. “That’s why I had no problems saying early that Skai was going to be a special player. He has great ball skills. And he is only going to get better because he is going to get stronger, bigger and faster. He can run and he’s a good tackler already. He just needs to work on little things related to technique and fundamentals.

“Skai will definitely improve from year one to year two as a linebacker. That’s exciting because he has it all.”

Marcquis Roberts started the first eight games at Will before Moore supplanted him, although both players saw significant action. Ward anticipates an intense position battle between the duo in the spring with both players eyeing the starting job.

“If you don’t have top competition on this level, you’ll never reach the goals that you want to accomplish,” Ward said. “But because we do have competition, the young men push each other. It’s all about recruiting high character young men and letting them push each other.”

Kaiwan Lewis (54 tackles) and T.J. Holloman (44 tackles) held down the middle linebacker spot for most of the season, but Ward believes rising sophomore Jonathan Walton, who contributed mainly on special teams last season, will make a push for a spot on the depth chart first in the spring and then during preseason camp in August.

“There is going to be a lot of competition because Jonathan Walton is going to be a ballplayer,” Ward said. “(This past season) it wasn’t anything physical. It was just putting a young guy that hadn’t been in the system in the middle and expecting him to make all the checks. That’s very hard. Kaiwan learned from a couple of seniors (in 2012) and T.J. was the same way. They got some reps a year ago that helped them be able to do it this past season. Hopefully, Jonathan will pick those things up in the spring and get right in the mix.”

Lewis struggled early in the season, but solidified his grip as the starter at Mike over the second half of the season with Holloman serving as the reliable backup.

“Those two guys battled back-and-forth and they knew whoever practiced the best would start,” Ward said. “Kaiwan never hung his head when T.J. started (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee) and T.J. never hung his head when Kaiwan started. They both played a lot in each ballgame. The more they played, the better they got.

“We ask an awful lot from our Mike linebackers because they have to set the front and they move the front and get all the adjustments inside the box,” Ward said. “Both of those guys did a very good job and they will continue to push each other.”

Next to Moore, perhaps no second-level performer came further in 2013 than spur Sharrod Golightly, who started all 13 games and earned a spot on the AP All-SEC second team. Golightly had one of the biggest tackles of the season on New Year’s Day when he stonewalled Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon on fourth-and-inches from the USC 26 early in the fourth quarter with the Gamecocks holding a slim 20-17 lead.

After contributing mostly on special teams in 2011 and 2012, Golightly took full advantage of his initial opportunity to play on defense.

“He got better as the season went,” Ward said. “He is a bit overmatched by big tight ends, but he uses his speed and quickness to his advantage. He is a slasher. He can slice and make some plays that most people can’t like that play (in the bowl game) when he came off the edge on that fourth down play and got the running back by his leg. Sharrod is a good, solid football player, but we know he has limitations because of his size. We just have to use what he’s got to his advantage.”

When the season started, USC’s defensive coaches thought the spurs would be utilized primarily in pass coverage. However, as the season progressed, Golightly and Jordan Diggs proved unexpectedly reliable in run defense. As a result, they lined up more in the box than most people envisioned last summer.

“As the season developed, we saw they could play more in the box,” Ward said. “We definitely put them more in the box. Jordan is a physical, strong young man. They both complemented each other very well. We’re definitely going into the spring with an open playbook at that position. We don’t have to be limited because of the size of those guys.”

While Diggs should battle Golightly for the starting job in March and April, Ward expects Larenz Bryant to make a move by showcasing his impressive physical skills.

“Larenz is a lot like Jonathan (Walton),” Ward said. “He just has to do a lot of adjusting. If he learns what to do, he has the physical ability to do it. I fully expect him to be better this coming spring than he was as a freshman last season. He played a lot on special teams and played a little (at spur) in the games. We expect Larenz to be in the mix, but it is a blessing to have two guys coming back that played an awfully lot for us at the position.”

Mohamed Camara didn’t arrive at USC until mid-August after preseason camp has already started, so he redshirted. Kyle Fleetwood was moved to spur last season and will fight for depth chart spot as well, although Ward wouldn’t rule out another position change for the rising redshirt sophomore as the USC coaches figure out his optimum spot.

Both Camara and Fleetwood should benefit from a maximum number of snaps during spring practice.

“We don’t know a lot about Camara because he got here late for camp, but we want to put our eyes on him and see him practice,” Ward said. “We’ll definitely give Fleetwood a chance to help this team somewhere.”

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