COLUMBIA — Early in the fourth quarter of last year’s Clemson game, South Carolina running back Mike Davis limped to the sideline.
Position: Running Back
Class: Redshirt sophomore
Height: 6-2. Weight: 225
High School: Blythewood
The Skinny: Redshirted in 2012 after suffering high ankle sprain. As a true freshman in 2011, Wilds rushed for 486 yards and 3 TDs. Had 100-yard games against Tennessee (137), Florida (120) and The Citadel (109). Caught 15 passes for 136 yards.
USC running backs coach Everette Sands approached the freshman and asked him if he would be able to go back into the game.
Davis wasn’t sure.
Kenny Miles, a senior running back, was already on the bench after tweaking his knee earlier in the game.
Sands turned to look at Brandon Wilds, who suffered a high ankle sprain during preseason practice and had not played all season. The decision had already been made to redshirt the former Blythewood High School star.
But Sands needed a running back and Wilds was the last one left standing.
Wilds was torn. He desperately wanted to get back on the field after missing the entire year, but he also didn’t want to burn his redshirt season for a single carry this late in the year.
“A part of me wanted to get back on that field so badly, especially because it was Clemson. But another part of me realized that I’d lose that entire year for one or two carries,” Wilds said.
In the end, Miles was able to get back into the game, and Wilds’ redshirt season was saved — a decision that Wilds hopes pays huge dividends over the next few seasons.
“I think we made the right decision not play last season,” Wilds said. “It was a tough year. It was a long year, it wasn’t easy being on the bench. I got pretty frustrated, especially when my ankle started to feel better, but I know it was the right thing to do.”
Wilds, a redshirt sophomore, Davis and Shon Carson have the unenviable task of trying to replace Marcus Lattimore.
All three are sophomores and bring something a little different to the huddle. Wilds is the power back, a 225-pound sledgehammer, but also a gifted receiver out of the backfield. Davis has the combination of speed and cutting ability that make him a breakaway threat any time he touches the ball. Carson is combination of both Davis and Wilds.
“I know that Brandon is very eager to get back on the field,” Sands said. “He’s a big back with good speed. Right now, he does the best job in pass protection and picking up the blitzes. We’re hoping this is a breakthrough year for him.”
Ironically, Wilds is the running back with the most experience. As a true freshman in 2011, Wilds found himself so far down on the depth chart he wasn’t even listed. But injuries to Lattimore (knee), Carson (knee), Miles (wrist) and Eric Baker (ankle) opened a door for Wilds that he gladly stepped through.
In week 8, Wilds got his first collegiate start at Tennessee and quickly won over USC fans, rushing for 137 yards and catching three passes for 31 yards in a 14-3 victory.
“Everyone kind of doubted me going into that game, but I knew what I was capable of doing,” Wilds said. “I wasn’t intimidated or nervous because we were on the road. I was prepared when I got onto the field.”
Two weeks later, he rushed for 120 yards and scored a touchdown in the Gamecocks’ 17-12 win over Florida. He added his third 100-yard performance the following week against The Citadel. He finished the 2011 season with 486 yards.
“Brandon did a good job filling in for Marcus his freshman season,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier. “We knew he was pretty talented when we signed him, but I’m not sure we thought he could contribute like he did.”
Wilds and Davis are expected to battle for the starting job this season. Sands wants Wilds to run more like a 225-pound power back than a lighter speed back.
“Brandon needs to finish off his runs,” Sands said. “I saw signs of progression with that during the spring. He was looking for contact instead of trying to avoid it.”
Wilds said he has worked on his speed and conditioning during his year away from football.
“I think I’m quicker and faster than I was when I was a freshman,” Wilds said. “I’m in the best shape of my life.”