Brandon Wilds began his freshman season in 2011 so far down on the South Carolina depth chart at running back that it was assumed he would be redshirted.
But things began happening that made that an impossibility. There were injuries to Kenny Miles, Shon Carson and Eric Baker before starting running back Marcus Lattimore went down with a season-ending knee injury against Mississippi State.
Wilds made his first career start against Tennessee and responded with 137 yards on 28 carries. He rushed for more than 100 yards in three games and finished the season with 486 yards on 107 carries, good enough for third on the team behind Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw.
It was more than the running back from Blythewood High expected to accomplish in his freshman season. But it was some sage advice from Lattimore that proved to be the soothing factor.
“Before the Tennessee game, Marcus told me it was like a typical Friday night (in high school football),” Wilds said. “Don’t think too much of it and do what God put you here for. I took that advice to heart. I was ready to play from the beginning of the season because — just as it played out — anything can happen.”
Wilds was expected to battle for the back-up position behind Lattimore this past season but his year never got on track. He sustained a high ankle sprain early in preseason camp and it took more than half the season before it was healed. He could have played during the latter part of the season, but the Gamecocks had Miles and freshman Mike Davis filling in when Lattimore suffered his second season-ending knee injury in as many years. So, the decision was made to preserve the season for Wilds with a redshirt.
He used that year to make himself a more complete back. According to Wilds and running backs coach Everette Sands, the time away from the active roster has made Wilds hungier and, in many aspects, a better back.
He has been one of the most impressive players in winter workouts for USC. Wilds is faster than he’s ever been — probably South Carolina’s fastest back right now — and had toned down from about 230 to 215 pounds by the start of spring practice on March 5. .
“I want to prove that I’m ready and not rusty, like some people are saying,” Wilds said. “I used my time away to work on a lot of things, but what I needed to work on most was my speed and cutting ability.”
Wilds ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at the conclusion of the winter workouts. That impressed Sands.
“He’s looking good,” Sands said. “He was good for the last five games of the 2012 season but the fact that it was so late and we were already using Mike Davis, we couldn’t redshirt Davis so we decided to redshirt Wilds instead. He’s explosive right now. Brandon did a great job in the offseason. We ran his best 40 ever. He had a 40-inch vertical, which is extremely explosive. He’s looking the best since he’s been here.”
How that shakes out as far as playing time is concerned will be worked out over the rest of spring practice and preseason camp in August. Lattimore opted to enter the NFL draft after his junior season and Miles graduated. That leaves Wilds to compete with Davis, Carson (who is playing baseball this spring) and redshirt freshman Kendric Salley.
Both Wilds and Davis have proven they are SEC-caliber backs. At this stage, they also have shown they each bring something different to the table.
“Brandon is bigger and, actually, faster right now, but Mike is quicker,” Sands said. “I’m looking for a great competition. Both Mike and Brandon had great offseasons. I’m looking for both to step up and for one to say, ’This is my job.’ It will take a combination of making some plays running the ball, being consistent in pass protection and being a good receiver as well. The total back concept.”
Wilds sees the competition the same as his coach. He and Davis are best of friends away from the field.
“We’re competing right now but the ultimate goal is to be the No. 1 back,” Wilds said. “Mike is more of the scat back and I’m more of a power back. We’re two different type of backs. One of us will probably be the starter and the other will be able to bring that change of pace. We’ll see how it plays out but I’m doing everything I can to be that No. 1 guy.”