COLUMBIA - Shaq Roland saw the challenge on game film this week as he prepared for the Capital One Bowl.
Shaq Roland stats:
343 receiving yards
18.05 yards per catch
Wisconsin, typical of a Big Ten defense, doesn't give up anything easy. The Badgers' cornerbacks crowd the line of scrimmage. They jam. They shove. They grab.
Whatever it takes to disrupt a receiver's timing on pass routes, Roland saw it.
"They like to play a lot of man-to-man," Roland said. "So it's going to be a lot of bump-and-run, one-on-one outside. And I think that's the kind of game I like, one-on-one."
Roland smiled as he spoke. He has no problem accepting the challenge Wisconsin's defense presents. Lately, no secondary has been able to stop him.
Roland recovered from a four-game suspension in October - something coach Steve Spurrier said "wasn't entirely his fault" - to end the season on a hot streak. He caught four touchdowns in the Gamecocks' final four games, including a 9-yard, tip-toeing reception on the first play of the second quarter against Clemson. The score gave USC a lead it never relinquished.
For Roland, it was the type of catch that revealed how good he can be.
"Man, we were actually watching it today, he barely got a foot in. The guy had him covered," Spurrier said Wednesday. "I don't know how he caught it."
Spurrier didn't want to hear about Roland's late-season emergence. The Head Ball Coach pointed to the opener against North Carolina, when Roland caught a 65-yard touchdown on the Gamecocks' third snap of the season. At the beginning and end of the fall, Roland was a productive member of USC's offense.
The former South Carolina Mr. Football recovered from his suspension to post better numbers across the board compared to his freshman season. He finished with 19 catches for 343 yards and five touchdowns. He led the Gamecocks with 18.05 yards per catch, which also ranked fifth in the SEC.
Most importantly, Roland was consistent in the season's final month. In three of November's four games, he had multiple catches with at least 40 yards and a touchdown.
"I'm pretty comfortable with everything," Roland said. "It's just me going out there and working hard every day and doing what I need to do. That goes for every one of our receivers. Everybody knows they can play. They're just waiting for the chance."
South Carolina's receiving core is far from toothless, but it lost depth Friday when it was announced junior Damiere Byrd will miss the Capital One Bowl with arthroscopic knee surgery. Byrd, the Gamecocks' second-leading receiver, was injured in practice this week.
Byrd caught 33 passes for 575 yards and four touchdowns this season. Along with Roland, the duo gave USC two receivers capable of stretching the field vertically, creating big plays in the passing game.
Now, even more responsibility will be on Roland's hands.
It's an opportunity for Roland to carry his momentum into the offseason. Still young, Roland knows he must continue improving in the future. Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney - three of the program's four recent South Carolina Mr. Footballs - have promising futures in the NFL.
How will Roland get there?
Near the end of Wednesday's practice, Roland was asked how this season could be used as a springboard.
"Looking to next season, I just want to work hard, get better every day and do whatever this man has to say," Roland said, placing a hand on receiver coach Steve Spurrier Jr.'s shoulder.
"Next season?" Spurrier Jr. asked. "It's this season."
"Oh, yeah," Roland said. "We've still got one more game."
One more game. And one more big challenge.
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