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With learning curve complete, Mo Kaba ready to anchor Gamecocks' LBs

Mohamed Kaba.JPG

Mo Kaba could be one of the Gamecocks' starting linebackers on Sept. 3. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

COLUMBIA — He should have put a royalty on his name.

South Carolina’s defensive coaches have been asked since the spring about which player has really improved.

“Mo Kaba,” they’ve all said.

South Carolina’s defensive players have been asked the same over the same period.

“Mo Kaba,” they’ve answered.

Mo Kaba wasn’t going to repeat it. But the third-year linebacker feels good.

Really, really good.

“Last year, really, was my first year back, it was my first year without the brace on. I was feeling just a little bit more confident in my knee,” Kaba said. “This year, I feel way better. I don’t have no issues with my knee at all.”

Kaba enrolled early to go through 2020 spring practice but never got to, as rehab from a high school ACL injury prevented him. He was still able to play that season, making the coaches’ SEC All-Freshman team, but as he and running back MarShawn Lloyd have discovered, returning from ACL surgery is really a two-year process.

Even last year, Kaba was still learning to trust his knee, to get over the hurdle of knowing he should make this cut to get that runner but fearful his knee would buckle if he tried. He played in every game in 2021 and recorded 25 of his 32 tackles in the final six games.

Coming into spring ball this year, Kaba knew it was his time. He had a wonderful session, earning prizes for most improved defender and special teams player of the spring, and kept in shape this summer with his individual work, plus his side gig.

Kaba took it back to the old school this summer, offering to come to anyone who asked and cut the grass around their place. He was back home in Clinton, N.C., and joked he was on the summer job circuit since he hadn’t yet landed any NIL deals.

Catoe’s Power Equipment in Columbia swooped in with Kaba’s first endorsement, so he could use their products in his venture. Nothing like walking a yard back and forth 100 times to substitute for leg workout day.

Returning to Columbia for summer workouts, Kaba was in the best shape of his life. Defensive coordinator Clayton White’s 4-2-5 scheme only utilizes two linebackers, but they’re in constant rotation, and Kaba knows that beckons for his chances to play, and play a lot.

Sherrod Greene is healthy but coming off two major injuries over the past two seasons. Brad Johnson and Debo Williams are worthy competitors. Big things are expected from freshman Stone Blanton.

But it’s Kaba’s year.

“I was nowhere near 100 percent, so I didn’t feel comfortable. It’s football, so I’m going to play regardless, but that first year, it was real tough for me. It showed me I got to put in way more work than I was doing,” he said. “They got me just pretty much everywhere. We’re real stacked in that linebacker room right now.”

Flourishing in White’s scheme that allows for player-led tweaks that they’re encouraged to offer, Kaba has combined what he’s learned from playing with what the other veterans have taught him. Greene and Johnson have been fantastic teachers, he said, as well as Ernest Jones, who left South Carolina for the NFL after the 2020 season and won a Super Bowl with the L.A. Rams as a rookie.

“We all know, just as long as you get the playbook down pretty much, then you have a chance. It’s not too hard of a scheme to learn, it’s an easy scheme to learn, but it’s a fun scheme at the same time,” he said. “We can have input in some of the things that we do. We have a lot of things like blitzes that we can tweak up a little bit. Just coverages that you don’t see in normal defenses.”

Now he only has to go prove he’s worth the accolades.

That’s the easy part.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.