Three seasons ago, linebacker Shaq Wilson led the South Carolina football team in tackles with 85 as a sophomore. Last week, the redshirt senior led the Gamecocks with eight tackles in their season-opening victory against Vanderbilt.
A lot has happened in the interim, both for Wilson and the USC program.
The Jacksonville, Fla., native saw his 2010 season go by the boards with a hamstring injury suffered on the first day of preseason camp. He appeared in one game before reinjuring it as the Gamecocks rolled to a 9-5 record and an SEC East championship.
Last season, Wilson was back on the field, and although he wasnt quite the same force as he was in 2009, he started eight of 13 games and compiled 52 tackles for a team that won a school-record 11 games.
In last weeks win against the Commodores, the 5-foot-11, 224-pounder looked like the Shaq of old. His first-quarter interception and 37-yard return with Vanderbilt at the USC 5-yard line reversed momentum and set up the Gamecocks first touchdown for a 7-0 lead. Hes excited about finding his top form again.
Im feeling good. I can be way better in all areas, Wilson said. Im feeling 100 percent, out there having fun, enjoying playing football, and enjoying game time.
New linebackers coach Kirk Botkin, who was coaching for Arkansas in 2009, got a good look at Wilson that season, when the linebacker registered a game-high 11 tackles against the Razorbacks. Botkin liked what he saw in Nashville.
He played pretty good last week. Hes smart, Botkin said. I cant say enough good things about him. Im glad hes on my team.
Wilson is expected to be a key component for a veteran unit that includes a number of playmakers. He would love nothing more than to have a big senior season and rise up as a big-play guy like former standouts like Eric Norwood and Melvin Ingram. But he knows that any number of current players could fill that role.
I feel like weve got a lot of people on our team who could do that, Wilson said. Of course, I want to be that player. But if its D.J. (Swearinger) or somebody else, Reggie (Bowens) or (Jadeveon) Clowney or Devin (Taylor), we want 11 people going to the ball at all times. Any of us could make that play.
He smiled, however, about not being able to take that interception all the way.
If I could do it all over again, Id switch the ball and try to pitch it to somebody, he said. Its all about scoring. I wouldnt mind if I had to pitch it to somebody else so they could score.
But Botkin cared far more about Wilson creating the turnover by making a savvy play.
On that play, he did his job. He didnt start chasing the ball, Botkin said. The opportunity came to him, and he made the play. He did it all night.
Sophomore cornerback Victor Hampton respects what Wilson has done during his years in the program. He wasnt surprised by his colleagues stellar play in the opener.
Hes the leader of our defense, and hes always around the ball, Hampton said. Its great to see him come out there every day and be the leader. He sets the tone and leads by example.
In the end, Wilson led a defense that held the Commodores to one touchdown and two field goals to help the Gamecocks get the conference win. USC plays host to nonconference foe East Carolina on Saturday, and he believes the defense can play much better.
He would like to see more consistency across the board, better communication, and strong leadership from the veteran linebacking corps.
Most of all, hes excited about the seasons first home game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Thats a good thing. Well get to use the crowd to our advantage, Wilson said. Itll be loud for us because theyre (ECU) going to do a lot of audibles with their hurry-up (offense). Were going to need the crowd to keep us up and going.