USC’s new linebackers catching on quickly

South Carolina linebackers coach Kirk Botkin wants his players to take copious notes in his meeting room when he reviews film and teaches them their responsibilities in the Gamecocks’ defensive alignments and pass coverages.

Each player has his own notebook to fill with what he learns during meetings. It is an important resource, especially as players adjust to college football’s complexities. Yet whenever Botkin scans the meeting room, he notices the writing in T.J. Holloman’s notebook is sparse.

“I see him not taking a lot of notes,” Botkin said. “But he can answer everything.”

When Botkin asks his linebackers to identify something on the screen or describe what gap they’re supposed to fill on a play, he rarely stumps Holloman, a redshirt freshman who has quickly established himself as one of USC’s smartest players and a potentially valuable member of a position group that lost all three starters after last season.

Soon after Holloman arrived last summer, senior free safety D.J. Swearinger noticed how fast Holloman caught on during practice and how sure he sounded in conversations. So Swearinger gave Holloman a nickname that stuck — Doc. Holloman embraces it, but admits it is not entirely accurate, because he does not envision himself practicing medicine.

“I’m more of a math guy,” he said.

Holloman, who attended a private Catholic school near Atlanta, is now enrolled in USC’s well-respected Darla Moore School of Business. Though crunching interest rates and remembering gap assignments to tackle a 200-pound running back are entirely different skills, Holloman translates his intelligence well to the field.

Holloman and Kaiwan Lewis, who played special teams last season as a true freshman, are practicing this spring at both the Mike and Will linebacker spots. The Mike is the middle of the three linebackers and is responsible for aligning the defensive front. So he must know his teammates’ duties on a play in addition to his own.

“Both of those guys are doing, for young guys, outstanding jobs of setting the fronts, talking, communicating,” Botkin said.

Linebacker was the most uncertain position on USC’s entire team entering this spring. Sophomore Will linebacker Cedrick Cooper is out for the spring after undergoing knee surgery, and though he might push Holloman for that spot during August practices, Botkin feels fairly comfortable right now with Lewis starting at mike and Holloman at will. Holloman played only will during practice last season, but has adjusted to the demanding mike spot.

“Sometimes, on the blitzes, I get out of my gap assignments, and I get jumped on for that,” Holloman said. “But the hardest thing about (Mike) is setting the fronts. I actually like Mike better, because you understand the total defense.”

Lewis was a dedicated Mike last season, as were current redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs and junior Sharrod Golightly at spur. They now compete for the starting job, but if Botkin is going to rotate any linebackers during games, he said spur is the most likely spot, at least right now.

Golightly split practice time in 2011 as a spur and strong safety. He became exclusively a spur in the spring of 2012. The spur is a hybrid role — part linebacker, part safety. But because Golightly and Diggs are 179 and 197 pounds — waifish compared to last year’s spur, 241-pound DeVonte Holloman — Botkin expects to use them more in man-to-man coverage on slot receivers.

Yet they will need to encounter bigger blocking tight ends at times. In these moments, Golightly hopes to use the hand placement techniques he learned from DeVonte Holloman’s predecessor, 202-pound Antonio Allen.

“You’ve just got to be quicker with your hands than the other guy,” Golightly said. “If he gets his hands on you, if you’re a smaller guy, it’s kind of a wrap.”

This spring is a learning experience for all three linebackers, whether Golightly is using tricks Allen told him, or T.J. Holloman is sitting in the meeting room, absorbing with only his eyes.

“I just visualize it – see it and remember,” Holloman said. “If (Botkin) tells us to write it down, I write it down. But I’m a very visual learner, so I learn just off of seeing.”