Going into the season, the biggest question mark for South Carolina was at linebacker, where the Gamecocks will feature three new starters.

But less than a week into preseason practice, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward thinks that what might have been a liability for the Gamecocks could turn into an asset by the end of the season.

Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis will likely start at middle linebacker, while redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman could rotate with Lewis or play weakside linebacker.

Cedrick Cooper dislocated his elbow during Monday night’s practice, but is only expected to miss a few days. Up until the injury, Ward said Cooper had appeared to be fully recovered after having offseason surgery and has started to secure a spot at weakside linebacker.

Cooper’s injury could open the door for Marcquis Roberts, who continues to challenge Cooper for playing time.

There’s still a battle at spur linebacker between Sharrod Golightly and Jordan Diggs.

One thing Ward knows for sure is that the Gamecocks will be more athletic at linebacker than they have been in the recent past.

“I can say we’re very excited about the young guys we’ve got at linebacker,” Ward said. “They’re very athletic and they all can run. We’ll see how they tackle once we put the pads on, but I’m confident they’ll be ready.”

Ward said that the overall speed at linebacker with this group is the best he’s seen since coming to USC in 2009.

“There’s no question we’re going to be faster and more athletic than we were last year,” Ward said. “This is the fastest group we’ve had since I’ve been here. The youth and inexperience are the big question marks. I know these kids can play.”

Ward said he doesn’t want to simplify his defensive gameplan because of the inexperience at linebacker. But he’ll do what he has to do to get them playing at a high level.

“We’ve got 20-something practices to get them ready. I’m confident we’ll get there, but it could affect the way I call a game,” Ward said. “I think they’re picking everything up pretty well so far in the first week. They retained what we did during the spring and that was important. I’ve been impressed with them so far.”

Clowney returns

All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney returned to practice Monday night after sitting out much of Sunday’s practice. He tweaked his knee during Saturday’s practice.

“He just got banged up a little bit, but he’s fine,” said defensive line coach Deke Adams. “He had a great day.”

Another watch list

If it’s Monday, Clowney must have been added to another watch list.

Clowney has been named to the preseason watch list for Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the top defensive end.

Clowney is the defending Hendricks Award winner. A unanimous first-team All-American a year ago, he has been named to every SEC preseason all-conference team and every preseason All-America squad this year.

He is also listed on several national preseason watch lists, including the Maxwell, Bednarik, Rotary Lombardi, Walter Camp and Nagurski awards.

Fan Appreciation Day

The annual fan appreciation day is set for Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Colonial Life Arena.

With the NCAA’s investigation into Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Gamecocks players will sign autographs, but they will only sign the official South Carolina posters.

USC officials are expecting a big crowd and are asking fans to limit their autograph signings to one poster per person.