Linebacker newcomers eager for chance to play right away

dmclemore@thestate.comAugust 1, 2013 

Skai Moore has spent the summer getting comfortable in a new setting, preparing for his first practices as a Gamecock and making friends with his fellow freshman linebackers.

Relationships take a back seat to competition once preseason camp begins Friday, according to the linebacker from Cooper City, Fla.

"Once we step on the field, there are no friends out there," Moore said. "It's definitely going to get heated on the field. We've just go to go out there and grind."

Coaches are expecting good competition in the battle to replace the four seniors who anchored the Gamecocks' two main linebacker roles last season. Nine scholarship players - four of them true freshmen - will vie for a spot in that two-deep rotation as well as roles on special teams.

All four of those freshmen could see the field in some form or fashion in 2013, coaches say.

"They will determine how much they play," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "We need depth this year. We were blessed to have that last year. You're going to get injuries, so we need those young guys to step up and be ready to play."

Moore and Larenz Bryant will start camp at the weakside linebacker spot. At 205 and 215 pounds, respectively, they're the lightest of the freshmen.

David Johnson and Jonathan Walton will begin their careers at middle linebacker roles.

Listed at 268 pounds, Johnson is the heaviest of all the linebackers. The 6-foot-1 freshman from Lithonia, Ga., views the competition for playing time as wide open.

"We've got older guys who are in the starting lineup right now," he said. "It's still a fight. We've got to fight for playing time all year long. I'm going to try my best to get out there on that field."

USC's preseason depth chart lists sophomore Cedrick Cooper as the starting weakside linebacker and sophomore Kaiwan Lewis as the top middle linebacker. No returnee has ever started a game and the group has 19 career tackles.

With such a young group, there could be a slower pace and different approaches taken early on during practice, linebackers coach Kirk Botkin said. That might include less time in the classroom and more time for walk-throughs.

The newest faces also need to quickly realize that they're not in high school anymore, Botkin said.

"They don't have to make every play," he said. "Kids coming from high school think they have to make every play. You don't have to make every play and you're not going to. Just do your job. Know where your help is. You're always going to have help."

Moore said it's important to learn the plays as quickly as possible and show coaches he can match up quickly with those on offense.

He hopes his goal of playing right away is shared by Johnson, Bryant and Walton.

"I like teammates who feel like they should be on the field as well," Moore said. " I feel like it's pretty open and whoever performs the best in camp is going to get the job. I'm ready for that."

The true freshmen

Senior year production

... Larenz Bryant, 6-0, 215, Charlotte, N.C. | 84 tackles, nine sacks (also ran for 1,694 yards and 21 touchdowns)

... David Johnson, 6-1, 268, Lithonia, Ga. | 109 tackles, 10 sacks

... Skai Moore, 6-2, 205, Cooper City, Fla. | 103 tackles, six sacks, four interceptions

... Jonathan Walton, 6-0, 234, Daphne, Ala. | 122 tackles and three blocked punts

He said it

"The young guys don't know what to expect. The young young ones, their eyes are wide open, they think they're 10-feet tall and bulletproof right now. We're going to make them keep feeling that way." - linebackers coach Kirk Botkin

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