South Carolina junior linebacker Shaq Wilson is used to flying under the radar.
Playing his high school ball at First Coast in Jacksonville, Fla. the diminutive linebacker was often overshadowed in recruiting circles by teammate and fellow linebacker Nigel Carr. At 6-3, 240-pounds Carr had the size the 5-10, 196-pound Wilson lacked. Carr went on to play for Florida State. The Seminoles never offered Wilson.
His first two seasons at South Carolina have been more of the same. Despite the fact Wilson has been a consistent tackling machine in the Gamecocks' defense – and even led the team in tackles last year with 85 – Wilson's name is often mentioned well behind players like Eric Norwood, Cliff Matthews and Stephon Gilmore when talking about the leaders of the Gamecock defense. In his two seasons at Carolina Wilson has quietly tallied 101 tackles.
Always around the football, and always making plays, now at 5-10, 226-pounds Wilson has still often been the forgotten man on a Gamecock defense that finished third in the SEC last season in yards allowed.
But if Thursday at SEC Media Days is in indication, Wilson's days in the shadows may be over as 900+ media members were introduced to the undersized linebacker from South Carolina who always seems to be around the football.
"This is just how I dreamed about it," Wilson said of the crowd of reporters around him. "Growing up as a kid you just want to be able to do big things. Last year seeing Eric and Moe here and being a junior it's a great experience for me. I'm very blessed. I just thanked God before I came."
Wilson, who filled in at middle linebacker last season after Rodney Paulk went down with a season ending injury in the first game, will be one of the main players on this year's defense asked to replace all-time sacks and tackles-for-loss leader Eric Norwood. He is also Norwood's direct replacement at the weakside linebacker position. While Wilson is a different type player than Norwood – more of a traditional 4-3 linebacker while Norwood was a rush specialist – he doesn't expect much to change and says he is taking on the challenge head on.
"I feel like I can do the same things that Eric did, just a little bit different," Wilson said noting that the responsibilities of the position won't change much. "I feel like I'm a great player. I've got a lot of things to prove. I'm just going to go out there and have fun. I just want to make my parents proud, make my coaches proud and make the Gamecock Nation proud."
While Wilson will surely produce on the field, his toughest task may be to replace Norwood's leadership off the field. Norwood has arguably been the heart and soul of the Gamecocks' defense for the last three seasons and was the player the rest of the team turned to when it needed someone to step up the most.Senior defensive end Cliff Matthews says Wilson can be that guy.
"First you start off just being a by-example leader," Wilson says of his development in that area. "Then as you grow, as you gain years, you show the other players you can actually play, you become a vocal leader. When you know what you're doing, you're able to tell other people what to do, how to explain, how to help out the other players. I feel like I'm a good leader. I can be a vocal leader and I can lead by example."
Wilson will likely be a productive member of the Gamecock defense directly filling in at Norwood's position. But he and Matthews agree it will take a team effort to truly replace him.
"We believe. We believe in each other," he says of his teammates noting that they've worked harder as a team this offseason than the previous two. "That's all we need. Our coaches believe in us. Our fans believe in us. We're in there sweating, lifting weights every day, running, going hard. When you can look across at the next man's eye and see he's working hard as you and is going to have your back when it's fourth and two, that's all you need."
Wilson and his teammates hope that leads to more wins. The Gamecocks have averaged exactly seven wins in Spurrier's five years at the helm. With the SEC as wide open as ever, fans and media alike have pegged this as the year the Gamecocks could win nine, maybe even ten games. That would certainly make for one of the top seasons in South Carolina history. But Wilson says the expectations have to be even higher – his are.
"A successful team? Win every game," Wilson says with a shrug. "Why not? You want to be a winner – that's what you tell everybody. I believe we can win every game. Our coaches believe we can win every game. You just take it one day at a time – one day at a time, one game, one quarter, one play – go hard. A play is only like six seconds long – why (wouldn't) you go hard? You want to be a winner."
Wilson is definitely that. And his days out of the spotlight are likely over.
Wes Mitchell is the Publisher of GamecockAnthem.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesMitchellSC.
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