Linebacker depth a concern for Gamecocks, position coach Mike Peterson
COLUMBIA – The news overjoyed everybody in Gamecock Nation, but Mike Peterson grinned the widest. Skai Moore was returning to South Carolina after heavily thinking of entering the NFL Draft, even after sitting out the 2016 season following neck surgery.
Instantly, Peterson’s linebacker corps improved. Sure, Moore would have to prove it on the field, but how could he not be happy about having a ball-hawking defensive captain who led the Gamecocks in tackles his first three years? Pairing him with senior Bryson Allen-Williams, a veteran of 37 games, and rising sophomore T.J. Brunson, who played in 11 games last year, would give USC a formidable second level of the defense.
Yet if one were to get hurt …
Well, Peterson’s hoping that won’t happen. He trusts his backups, but none of them have played meaningful snaps at linebacker, if they’ve played at all.
“It’s concerning, but the thing is you get those young guys in and you got to bring them along fast. That’s college ball,” said Peterson, an all-star at Florida under Steve Spurrier and a survivor of 14 bone-jarring seasons in the NFL. “The bad side of it is there’s no free agency in this thing, we can’t go hit the waiver wire and go find another one. You got to play the hand you’re dealt, and that’s where we’re at with it.”
The depth chart reads like an M.C. Escher drawing. Allen-Williams is listed as the starter on one side, with converted safety Antoine Wilder his backup. On the other side is Moore … with Allen-Williams as his backup. Then Moore is the top backup for Brunson at middle linebacker.
The Gamecocks signed four linebackers in the recruiting class, junior-college product Eldridge Thompson and freshmen Damani Staley (son of former USC great and NFL running back Duce Staley), Davonne Bowen and Sherrod Greene. Freshman defensive lineman Brad Johnson is starting his career as a “Buck,” USC’s term for a pass-rushing defensive end/linebacker.
They’re all going to play.
“It is what it is,” coach Will Muschamp said. “That’s where we are right now. Those guys are going to have an opportunity. We told them in the recruiting process if they came here, they were going to have an opportunity.”
They certainly will. Peterson loves his starters but they can’t play every snap.
“All of them looked good,” he said. “My whole group of guys, I think they’re playing at a high level right now and I’m excited about them.”
The return of Moore gives the Gamecocks a man they can trust in the middle of the field, coordinating scheme switches on the fly and stopping anybody who gets through the first level of the defense. Allen-Williams has had a solid if inconsistent career – he’s been switched around so much and had to re-learn so many new defensive schemes he’s just now entering a second season with the same guy in charge.
The newbies are impressing in preseason camp and know what’s expected of them. “Damani Staley, Sherrod Greene, those two have really stood out for sure,” Moore said. “They just have to learn the playbook more, but as far as football skills, they’re not far off at all.”
The depth is thin and won’t get thicker. But Peterson feels any issues will be solved by playing the best they know how.
“Pressure cures everything. You can get after the quarterback and I tell (defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson), we want to make him look really, really good,” he said. “You get pressure, you make linebackers look good.”
There’s definitely pressure. Peterson’s hoping the second part comes around.