With Jasper Brinkley likely to remain on the sidelines while he continues to recover from torn knee ligaments, the most intriguing question about South Carolina's linebackers heading into the start of spring practice on Friday is this one:
Is Alonzo Winfield really that fast?
Winfield, a redshirt freshman who's listed at 6-foot-0, 218 pounds on USC's pre-spring roster, ran one of the quickest 40 times in recent testing, 4.38 seconds.
When he was hired as USC's new defensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson emphasized the need for speed. With Winfield, he might just get it.
Now that Dustin Lindsey has shifted to tight end, Johnson is hoping Winfield will challenge the incumbent Rodney Paulk for one of the starting outside linebacker spots.
Paulk, a local product from Richland Northeast High School, had a solid season in 2007 by finishing with 64 tackles, fourth highest on the team and the most by any linebacker. He recorded a season-high seven tackles in a game three rimes.
Winfield sat out last season after signing with USC in February of 2007 out of Carver High School in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he made 80 tackles in 2006. Rivals.com rated him the 44th best outside linebacker prospect in the nation.
According to the depth chart, the third linebacker at the same outside linebacker spot is true freshman Shaq Wilson, who enrolled at USC in 2007. With his current size - he's listed at 5-foot-11, 194 pounds - a redshirt season may be on the horizon for the graduate of First Coast High School in Jacksonville.
Wilson was a terror last fall for opposing defenses, accumulating 116 tackles, three sacks and three interceptions while leading First Coast to an 11-3 record and the district title. He was named the area's Defensive Player of the Year by the Florida Times-Union.
Because of his early enrollment and the opportunity to participate in spring practice, Wilson will likely log some snaps this season. Will he be able to crack the top two with Paulk and Winfield ahead of him on the depth chart?
You probably won't see Brinkley, who suffered season-ending torn knee ligaments early in the Sept. 22 loss to LSU, at all this spring. But, as Spurrier recently pointed out, the Thomson, Ga. native has little to prove.
Once he returns to full health, Brinkley will take the starting reins at middle linebacker. He led USC with 107 tackles in 2006 before making 21 stops last season when the knee injury occurred.
Spurrier has publicly proclaimed his giddiness over Brinkley's decision to return to USC for another season rather than declare for the NFL Draft.
"Jasper is not going to do much this spring, but he doesn't need to," Spurrier said. "We're elated he decided to stay at USC and graduate."
Brinkley's absence means senior Marvin Sapp (5-11, 228 pounds) and sophomore Melvin Ingram will fight it out to see who gets to man the middle for the first-team defense during the spring.
Sapp has enjoyed a productive career at USC while playing multiple linebacker positions. He has 135 career tackles. He assumed the starting middle linebacker job when Brinkley went down last season.
Sapp finished with a career-high 61 tackles, and was the highest non-sophomore on the tackles chart. He averaged 6.1 tackles per game after Brinkley was hurt
Ingram received valuable playing experience as a true freshman last season, totaling 15 tackles. Known as a hard-hitter, Ingram has had added nearly 20 pounds to his frame since arriving at USC last summer.
Ingram is currently listed at 6-foot-2, 269 pounds, about three three inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Sapp. Will Ingram's superior size carry the day for the Hamlet, N.C. native?
The fourth-string middle linebacker on the pre-spring depth chart is Vandaral Shackleford, a junior from Riverdale, Ga. He joined USC in 2006 and appeared destined for a redshirt season before he was inserted into the Auburn game when former defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix was searching for more physical play from his linebackers.
Shackleford, entering his junior season, registered two tackles early last season but didn't appear in the final nine games.
Cliff Matthews started last season as a defensive end, but shifted to outside linebacker after Casper Brinkley was moved to defensive end and eventually started nine games there as a true freshmen.
Matthews finished with 26 tackles and recorded the first blocked punt by a USC player in seven years. Matthews impressed the USC coaches with his football knowledge and maturity.
However, it's possible Matthews could put move closer to the line of scrimmage at times as an additional defensive end to help out with the pass rush.
"He's a guy we're going to try to not take off the field," said Brad Lawing, Matthew's former position coach at defensive line. "If it's not at a linebacker position, we'll let him put his hand on the ground and rush the quarterback.
"Cliff is a playmaker. He has tremendous ability and a tremendous motor. He's going fast all the time. We talk with our players all the time about playing fast. Cliff understands playing fast. He doesn't need to be on the sidelines just because it's something involving coverage."
According to the pre-spring depth chart, the only challengers for Matthews this spring are juniors Gerrod Sinclair (6-0, 234) and Damien Wright. Sinclair saw increased playing time towards the end of last season and finished with 15 tackles, including four in the Arkansas loss. Sinclair is entering his fourth season with the program. Will his experience be enough to overcome Matthews' superior size and skill?
Both Sinclair and Wright have played primarily on special teams in their careers.
Reggie Bowens, a high school teammate of Chris Culliver at Garner (N.C.) High School, signed with USC in February but is expected to redshirt this season after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery.
SPRING 2008 LINEBACKER ROSTER:
## Expected to miss spring practice
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