COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina has All-American Jadeveon Clowney up front and a solid secondary behind. In the middle, though, is where the defensive questions begin for the sixth-ranked Gamecocks.
South Carolina lost five senior linebackers from one of the Southeastern Conference's top defenses a year ago. Shaq Wilson, Reggie Bowens, Quin Smith and Demario Jeffery took nearly every snap at the position in 2012 while DeVonte Holloman was one of the team's top playmakers from his hybrid spot of strong safety/linebacker.
That means South Carolina will rely on a group of untested youngsters as they look to keep opponents in check, starting with North Carolina on Aug. 29.
"We have the right players to get this done," said Marcquis Roberts, a redshirt sophomore who may be the oldest of the young bunch.
The Gamecocks will find out quickly if Roberts is right. They open against the up-tempo Tar Heels who feature an experienced quarterback in Bryn Renner who attended the Manning Passing Camp this offseason.
North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said the Gamecocks talent at the linebacking position can make up for inexperience because those young players took advantage of their time on the field last year.
"Even though they're not penciled in as starters a year ago, they're playing a significant amount of snaps," Anderson said. "They can fly, they've got tremendous team speed."
South Carolina linebackers coach Kirk Botkin wishes he had the same comfort. He joked before last season when he took the assistant's job that he'd wait to see how good he'd do when he "didn't have five seniors on the roster."
That time is now.
Roberts is making a strong push to start against the Tar Heels. Cedrick Cooper had been counted on for a spot, but has spent most of camp on the sidelines with an elbow injury. T.J. Holloman and Kiawan Lewis were around last season with first-year players Larenz Bryant, Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton making a push for playing time.
"We're young and we like to fly around," Walton said. "Our whole linebacker corps, we've been working on that a lot."
Botkin believes the young group paid attention last year from the sidelines when Wilson led the team in tackles and Holloman had a team best three interceptions. Botkin quizzed them hard at meetings, he said, and made sure they soaked up as much as possible to prepare for this season.
"They're doing a great job paying attention and focusing in on the tiny details of their position," Botkin said.
When people think of South Carolina's defense, they think mostly of Clowney, the 6-foot-6, 274-pound lineman who had 13 sacks a year ago. Clowney's part of a deep and talented front line that includes Chaz Sutton at the other end and Kelcy Quarles at defensive tackle.
The Gamecocks secondary should also be a strength with cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree. Hampton started 12 games a year and Legree eight.
Legree's not too worried about the inexperience at linebacker.
"Of course, they're young and they're going to make mistakes," he said. "But they've got talent. I trust them."
How well the linebacker perform will go a long way to determining if South Carolina can continue its rise in the SEC. The Gamecocks have won 11 games in consecutive years for the first time in school history.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said the linebackers the team's brought in the past few classes are highly regarded, but just haven't reached the field yet.
"You've got guys who don't have experience playing the game yet, but I can tell you we're excited about the young guys we've got because they're athletic," Ward said. "They all can run. We'll wait to see how they can tackle, but I feel confident they are going to be good at that, too."
Roberts was injured his first two years with the team and is finally healthy and ready to contribute. He says he learned a lot watching the Gamecocks former linebackers.
"All of them were great leaders and they taught me the plays," Roberts said. "I plan to follow in their footsteps."
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.