COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s spring practices conclude in front of thousands of fans today at Williams-Brice Stadium, with the spring game — an event that has become a festival of sorts, but remains no more definitive than anything else that happened on the practice fields this month.
Most of the Gamecocks’ returning stars won’t play today, because coach Steve Spurrier likes to use the spring, and today’s game, to get younger players experience. And as the Gamecocks try to build on back-to-back program-best 11-2 seasons, the weeks between now and the Aug. 29 opener against North Carolina will be important for two key players returning from injury.
Linebacker Cedrick Cooper and free safety T.J. Gurley, both sophomores who missed the spring, are expected to be back from knee injuries suffered last season by August practices. Cooper will compete for the will linebacker job, and Gurley has a chance to grab the free safety spot vacated by D.J. Swearinger.
Both could play valuable roles on a defense that ranked 11th and third nationally the past two seasons in yards allowed per game, so the progress they make between now and August, in moments not seen by scores of fans, will be critical.
Cooper will return to a linebacker group that lost all three starters from last season. His absence this spring has allowed position coach Kirk Botkin to get sophomore Marcquis Roberts some work at will linebacker. Roberts needed the work, because he missed all of the past two seasons with injuries, and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward liked what he saw from Roberts this spring.
“Marcquis is real physical,” said Ward. “He’s just got to continue to work on his run keys and getting pull calls.”
Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis and redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman have impressed Ward and Botkin this spring with their ability to recognize offensive tendencies, and when linemen pull off the line of scrimmage to block in the open field.
This spring, both played will linebacker and mike linebacker — the player responsible for getting the defensive front aligned before the snap. Lewis has played mike since he got to USC last summer, so he is the leading candidate to start there. Botkin isn’t sure if he will have Holloman compete with Cooper at will linebacker during August practices, or rotate with Lewis at mike.
“T.J. Holloman is a smart enough kid that he can probably learn both,” Botkin said. “He’s doing such a good job vocally. He and Kaiwan Lewis for young guys are doing a great job of that, communicating.”
While the will linebacker spot remains uncertain, junior Sharrod Golightly has emerged from the spring as the top spur outside linebacker, ahead of redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs.
“I think Sharrod is slightly ahead of Jordan Diggs,” Ward said. “It’s real close. They both have done a lot of good things. I think Sharrod has probably made more plays this spring.”
“(Golightly) is just more mature. He’s got a little bit more experience. He understands where his help is just a little bit more.”
But the position is far from settled, and Botkin emphasized that he expects to rotate his linebackers this fall.
Just as the coaches were in no rush this spring to settle the will or spur linebacker spots, partly because of Cooper’s absence, the free safety position remains up for grabs. Swearinger was one of USC’s most vocal leaders last season and will not be easily replaced.
Gurley started in place of Swearinger last season against Missouri because Swearinger was suspended for a helmet-to-helmet hit. Gurley impressed Ward and secondary coach Grady Brown with his performance, but four games later, he suffered a season-ending knee injury at Florida.
“If he can get back to the form that he was in last year, I can definitely see him in the mix,” Brown said. “It’s just about his health. Any time as a DB that you hurt your lower extremities, it just takes you a little while to get back going.”