COLUMBIA — The cry rises up from South Carolina’s football practice field every so often: “Come on, Fort Myers, let’s play!” It comes from the energy source in USC’s linebacker group — senior Shaq Wilson, who gave younger linebackers like true freshman Jordan Diggs nicknames based on their hometowns.
Wilson’s boundless enthusiasm, born of perspective he gained two years ago, helped push Diggs through the grind of preseason practices. And it makes Wilson stand out as a prominent fifth-year senior on USC’s defense, just as much as his on-field production does.
“Every day, he’s going to give you the same energy,” Diggs said. “Shaq doesn’t have bad days. You have some guys that’ll come out (at practice) and they’re just not being their normal selves. Shaq is always talking. He’s screaming. He’s making little jokes.
“Shaq’s a guy that if you’re having a bad day, he’s going to come and say two or three words to you, and you’ll get so geeked for practice. We all feed off his energy. I look up to Shaq, so I know when I get in that position, that’s how a leader is supposed to be.”
Wilson, USC’s starting weak-side linebacker, considers himself fortunate to have had older role models when he was a freshman in 2008 — Jasper Brinkley and Eric Norwood. They helped imbue him with the confidence he needed in 2009, when he started and led the team in tackles.
Wilson is now doing what Brinkley and Norwood did for him. Wilson is not the best NFL prospect on USC’s defense. Ends Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney get most of the recognition. But as the Gamecocks prepare for their third game of the season, Saturday night at home against Alabama-Birmingham, Wilson is clearly important to their success.
He leads USC with two interceptions — one in each of the first two games — both of which he made not with some astounding feat of athleticism, but because he was in the correct place on the field and read the play properly.
“Plays are coming to him because he’s doing his job,” said linebackers coach Kirk Botkin.
Wilson, who is 5-11 and 224 pounds, became a smarter player in 2010, when he missed all but one game (Week 4 at Auburn) because of a hamstring injury suffered on the first day of preseason practices. He never thought the injury would sideline him for that long. When it did, he took defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s advice and attended practice every day to observe.
“I just kept trying to learn more,” Wilson said. “I learned more about the stunts that the defensive line was doing, some coverages. You get to see the offense, how they’re scheming things. I just tried to get better any way I could even though I couldn’t come out here and play.”
Now, Wilson’s knowledgeable presence is “like playing with a coach on the field,” said cornerback Jimmy Legree. Wilson has more time to study film at home this season, because he graduated in May with a degree in African-American studies. (His four current classes, including fashion and first aid, aren’t too challenging, he said.)
Wilson returned last season and started eight games, sharing time with senior Rodney Paulk. Wilson ranked fourth on the team with 52 tackles, including five for a loss and a sack. He was USC’s second-leading returning tackler, behind free safety D.J. Swearinger.
Just as important, though, were the lessons Wilson taught himself during his year off, about appreciating the game, that he now passes along to younger players.
“You’ve just got to let them know that whatever they’re going through, it’s only temporary,” Wilson said. “I just let them know that you’ve got to separate school (struggles) and football. When you come out here, you’ve got to be able to perform and have fun and enjoy it.”
USC coach Steve Spurrier said on his radio show Thursday night that quarterback Connor Shaw threw “a little bit” Thursday and will be a game-day decision for UAB. Shaw is recovering from a bruised right (throwing) shoulder suffered in the Aug. 30 season opener at Vanderbilt. Dylan Thompson played in his place in last Saturday’s win over East Carolina.