When South Carolina linebacker coach Kirk Botkin started his new job this past offseason, he had the best possible scenario. His top five players, including the spur position, were seniors and experienced in playing in the SEC.
That group hasnt disappointed as three of the top four tacklers on the team are Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens and DeVonte Holloman. Quin Smith and Damario Jeffery have been solid contributors as well.
Wilson leads the team with 77 stops, Bowens is third with 55 and Holloman is fourth with 54.
Its been a luxury to have a bunch of guys that are smart, knowledgeable and know the game, Botkin said. I cant say enough about these seniors. Those five guys come to meetings every day in a good mood and eager to learn. Theyre attentive, they want to win and theyre competitors. When they come to practice, they work hard. We have a good relationship off the field, too. Theres more to life than football. Its been very enjoyable to be around those guys.
Wilson said the senior group formed a solid bond.
They are just like my brothers, Wilson said. Weve done just about everything together. Weve gone through a lot and we will always be close with each other.
As rosy as the outlook was for Botkin in his first season with the Gamecocks, that all changes after USC plays Michigan in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. All that depth will depart and Botkin will look to groom a group that will consist of players who have mainly seen action on special teams or mop-up duty, or who will be true freshmen.
Cedrick Cooper, Jordan Diggs, Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman expect to carry much bigger loads next season. Cooper and Lewis gained experience on special teams. Holloman was injured early in the season and Diggs appeared in two games and will likely apply for a medical redshirt.
Botkin was thankful he didnt have to throw that young crowd into the fire this season.
We threw a couple of guys out there on special teams. It was good to get them the experience being in front of big crowds and running down the field, Botkin said. That will only help them in the future. It will be interesting going through the spring and seeing how the young guys go. It will be fun.
Wilson has no doubts the youngsters will be able to produce when given the opportunity.
Those guys have been the best, Wilson said. Its hard making the adjustment to this level of play. I think it was good for them to be behind so many older guys early in their careers. I know when I came in, a lot of guys helped me out. All they need to do is get some experience under their belt. They will be all right.
The last thing Botkin wants to do is rely on true freshmen, but South Carolina expects to sign five or six players in February and some of those might be called on to contribute early. Among the highest-rated commitments are Larenz Bryant, Matt Rolin and Gerald Turner.