Even though he appeared in all 13 games last season as a true freshman, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney often relied upon his natural instincts to make plays.
Sometimes, too much.
So, the first item on Clowney's agenda this spring was obvious: Learn the defensive scheme.
"I didn't really know that much about the defense last year. I was tiptoeing out there not really knowing what I was supposed to do," Clowney remarked Tuesday after practice. "I was just running around out there. This year, I'm learning more and getting ready for the season. Right now, I know a lot more than last year. All the stuff we're doing now, I pretty much know it. The playbook was harder than I expected, but now it's easy."
Clowney arrived at South Carolina last July as a five-star prospect and the top player in the class of 2011 Rivals100, but he had just a month to learn as much of the scheme as he could before the start of pre-season camp. Turns out, it wasn't enough time considering the thickness of the Gamecocks' defensive playbook.
Despite 'winging it' most of the time, Clowney finished with 36 tackles and was honored as the SEC Freshman of the Year by the league's coaches. Most analysts believe the former South Pointe High mega-star has barely scratched the surface of his potential.
Clowney doesn't disagree.
"I feel I can get a lot better," he said. "You can always improve on your game no matter what you're doing. It's only going to make me better being out here."
Another lesson (literally) Clowney has learned since the end of last season: If you want to play football, you must go to class and perform the academic work required by the professors. Clowney missed the first spring practice because he was dealing with an academic issue.
However, an increased focus on academics is something Clowney has dealt with since the fall semester. He sat out the first quarter of the Clemson game for academic reasons.
"Just go to class and do all your work," Clowney smiled. "It's not that bad. Going to class is a big thing here. They expect you to go to class. But that's everywhere. You're a student-athlete, and a student first. You have to go to class to play football.
"I want to play football, so I go to class. A lot of guys don't understand that. They just want to play football and not go to class. I probably (had that attitude) a little bit, but now I go to class, I go to study hall, and I do my work. Then I come out here and have fun."
Clowney's top goal for 2012? Break South Carolina's single-season record for most sacks (10) currently held by Melvin Ingram (2011) and Andrew Provence (1982). They are the only two players in Gamecock history with double-digit sacks in one season.
Clowney had eight sacks last season, but believes he could have had a lot more had he taken advantage of his opportunities. By his count, he missed at least five more sacks.
"Melvin told me I should have broken the record last year," Clowney said.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward sees a different Clowney at spring practice than the one who made it through his freshman season by relying mostly on instincts.
"JD (Jadeveon) is doing better. He's learning what we're doing on defense," Ward said after Tuesday's practice. "I've been impressed with him. Today in practice he made plays."
Considering Clowney's stature as the No. 1 prospect in the nation, Ward isn't surprised he struggled early academically.
"(Clowney) is a young man that has probably had a lot of things given to him in his life, but it's not going to happen that way here," Ward insisted. "He understands that. He will get better and better."
So, from Ward's unique perspective, does Clowney grasp the concept that nothing is free in the SEC?
"I hope he does because if he doesn't, he hurts this football team," Ward said. "I don't think that's what he wants to do. We definitely expect him to adhere to all the rules and regulations. If he goes to class every day, he'll practice."
LEADER ON DEFENSE: Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens have rotated as the first-team linebacker in the first four spring practices and spent some time helping the younger linebackers develop.
As a fifth-year senior with 40 career games under his belt, Wilson (160 career tackles) is expected to provide the vital senior leadership most teams need in order to succeed in the rough-and-tumble SEC.
Wilson, though, contends he doesn't have to fulfill the leadership vacuum by himself.
"We lead as a team. We've got D.J. (Swearinger), we've got Akeem (Auguste)," Wilson said. "We have a lot of guys coming back. We have a lot of fourth and fifth-year seniors. Guys like myself, Reginald and DeVonte are all trying to lead the young guys by example."
Wilson has mentored USC's younger linebackers like Cedrick Cooper and Mason Harris.
"I'm just trying to help them out with the little things," Wilson said. "That's what I like about Coach (Kirk) Botkin. He talks about the little things like attitude, stance, where your eyes are, the first step. I'm trying to help the young guys out."
Wilson, who missed almost all of the 2010 season, returned last season to make 52 tackles, fourth-highest on the team and once again become a valuable member of USC's linebacker corps. He said he is 100 percent healthy going into his final season.
"Everybody was finally happy to put on the pads last week so we could finally hit somebody," Wilson said. "We had three months off except for winter workouts. I feel real good."
HAMPTON MATURING: Redshirt sophomore cornerback Victor Hampton has grown by leaps and bounds both as a person and a football player over the last year or so, although he sometimes takes too many risks on the gridiron by being too aggressive, Ward said.
"Victor is playing well but he takes too many chances," Ward said. "He has to make sure in the three-deep that he stays deep. He plays a lot with his eyes."
Hampton recognizes he sometimes plays too aggressively and not within the scheme. He has worked on improving his discipline as he tries to cement a starting job at cornerback in the wake of the departures of Stephon Gilmore, C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett.
"I'm ready to prove to my team that I'm ready to seize the opportunity and become a starter," Hampton said. "I also want my coaches to know that they can count on me. It's just knowing when I can take the chance and when not to take the chance. Coach (Ward) is not trying to take my aggressiveness away. He's just teaching me when to do it. At corner, you have to believe you can make every type of play."
Just like Clowney, Hampton learned a hard lesson early in his career about the importance of academics. He was suspended for the first three games of the 2011 season for racking up too many class and study hall absences. Previously, he came very close to being permanently dismissed from the team in the spring of 2011 following a redshirt season.
"They told me they want me to stay consistent on and off the field," Hampton said. "Once I got all my stuff off the field together, they weren't too concerned about my play on the field. It's just a matter of maturity. I'm taking everything one day at a time and staying out of trouble. After my freshman year when I almost got kicked off the team, I just had to realize what I wanted to do."
* Ward's assessment of the USC defense after two practices in pads: "We have a long ways to go. We've seen slight improvement by some young guys, but not enough improvement to where we feel good about them helping us win a lot of ballgames next season. But we still have a lot of practices to get it done." Ward mentioned DT J.T. Surratt, both Dixon brothers, Kadetrix Marcus, Brison Williams as standouts among the lowerclassmen.
* Ward said Williams "has shown signs of definitely being a starter for us at the boundary (strong) safety spot." Without seniors Akeem Auguste or D.J. Swearinger available for practice, Williams has been forced to take on more of a leadership role even though he's just a sophomore. "He has more experience than most of the other guys out there," Ward said. "He's doing things the right way on the field."
* Ward said he wants to see CB Jimmy Legree "compete more" at cornerback. Legree started at safety last season, but was moved to cornerback prior to spring practice.
* Botkin says his philosophy about playing linebacker is easy to understand - he wants his guys playing "downhill." He said one of his missions this spring is to "quit going lateral" and that many of the drills he relies upon in practice are designed to teach his guys to go forward. "Almost everything we do has more of a downhill (feel). The first thing we want them to do is take a little six-inch step and work downhill on every down," Botkin said.
* Botkin doesn't feel Quin Smith's prospects for playing this fall will be damaged that much by not participating in spring practice. "Quin just has to get healthy. He has played a lot, so we're expecting a lot from him," Botkin said. "He's been a very good player for us. He is a senior, so the most important thing for him is to get healthy. He understands what's going on and he has played. He can still get a lot of mental reps. That's what he's doing right now. He's helping to coach on the sidelines. He's doing a good job with that."
* Botkin said Damario Jeffery is still considered the first team Will linebacker.
* Botkin on Holloman playing spur: "Coming from the back end, he brings the coverage ability you want your spur to have. But then he has the size and stuff and runs well enough to cover. He can also blitz off the edge or go line up on a tight end. The spur gets asked to do a lot of different things. He's in space a lot more. That's one thing DeVonte brings because he's had that from years past. He's kind of what you're looking for in that spur spot. He might be a little heavy, but we can work on that too. He's moving pretty well."