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July 22, 2010HOOVER, Ala. -- Perhaps the only ones that weren't surprised by his presence were the ones who many came to see -- the players.
South Carolina's Shaq Wilson may seem like an afterthought as a 5-foot-10 linebacker, especially when seen as the replacement for all-time school sack leader Eric Norwood. Some scribes at SEC Media Days were flipping through the printed biographies on Thursday, wondering who this third Gamecock was after talking with team captains Cliff Matthews and Patrick DiMarco.
But there it was as the third note -- "Led the team in tackles in 2009."
Not Norwood. Not Matthews. Not Freshman All-American Stephon Gilmore and not NFL rookie Clifton Geathers.
Shaq Wilson, emergency fill-in when Rodney Paulk went down and just a sophomore, led the Gamecocks with 85 tackles last year.
Some of the guys who he brought down weren't shocked.
"You can pick out the ones who are on the field just because they're talented and the ones who are on the field because they're experienced," Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams said. "They're true football players, and he's a football player. I admire great talent, and he is a player who has the talent and hard work to go with it."
"I know we've seen a lot of him on film how long has he been there?" wondered Georgia fullback Shaun Chapas. "He's a good player and I remember him going against us. Very athletic and very fast and knows how to get to the ball."
Chapas seemed stunned when told Wilson was just a junior, saying it seemed like Wilson had been in the middle of the Gamecocks' defense for years. Wilson has played in all 26 games of his career, but was a backup in 2008 and a middle linebacker last year, before switching to weakside this year.
But they knew what Wilson knows -- he's in there to make plays. Somebody had to do it when Paulk tore a knee ligament during the season-opener last year, and Wilson was the first guy called.
Now he's expecting to hear his name a lot more -- as in when announcing game MVPs.
"I think I left an impression," Wilson quietly said, the room filling with more and more reporters as he spoke. "I got a lot to prove. I got a whole lot to prove. I got two years left, I want to come out and just be dominant, show people I can be a leader."
He did that in 2009 by staying plugged in at middle linebacker while Norwood continued his destruction of opponents' outside blockers. This season, with a healthy Paulk returning to Mike, Wilson is switching to Will to take advantage of his speed.
That's fine. He'll play wherever he's asked.
"I expect to play both," Wilson said. "Whatever I can do to help my team. One game I might play here, one game I might play there. Even during the game, coaches told me I might play in different spots."
The Gamecocks' defense, as usual, is expected to smooth any rough spots the offense might experience, especially in the early season when so much is unknown. Matthews, Gilmore, Chris Culliver, Akeem Auguste -- all are being asked to heavily contribute.
Wilson will be right there with them. He figures he's as good as any of the other linebackers in an historically loaded linebacking conference.
"I feel like I stack up pretty well," Wilson said. "There's a lot I can do to get people to know me more, but it's more about Gamecock nation. All the individual stuff will come. I just want to get better."
As for the shoes he's being asked to fill, Norwood casts a large shadow. Wilson can look up on any given play this fall and see Norwood's name pasted onto one of the stadium's ramps, befitting his status as a school record-holder.
"I feel like I'm Shaq Wilson," he said after a pause. "I'm going to be the best player I can be. I'm not Eric Norwood."
Wilson paused again as he looked at the faces clustered in front of him. The smile returned.
"Hopefully in a couple of years, y'all will come in here and there will be another player sitting in this seat, and you'll be saying, 'How are you going to live up to Shaq Wilson?'"
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