South Carolina defensive back Antoine Wilder knew East Carolina running back Anthony Scott had made a mistake.
The Gamecocks’ redshirt freshman had made a mistake of his own with a pass interference a few plays earlier, but as he raced to cut off the runner on USC’s 5-yard line Saturday he started seeing ahead.
“When I saw him running at me, I was saying in my head, ‘This guy better try to juke me,’ ” Wilder said. “But I see him lower his head and come full steam. I was just saying in my head, that’s the craziest thing you can do.
“I went at him how he came at me.”
Wilder went low, the ball popped out, and a player who’d spent last year on the sidelines, was making his first ever start and played no defensive snaps his first two games had contributed a vital defensive play in a tight win.
Not that this was a surprise to his teammates.
“He’s a true Georgia boy,” Gamecocks defensive back Steven Montac said. “He never complained really, only was getting reps on special teams, continued just working. Me and him talked a lot. He just kept saying, ‘I just can’t wait for my chance.’ Just like really stay down til he came up. That’s some good character right there.”
Wilder being in a spot to contribute was no sure thing.
He admitted he had a difficult go during fall camp. Learning the defense wasn’t easy. South Carolina’s coaches seemingly tried half its proven players at the nickel spot, with Jordan Diggs settling in as a starter.
“In camp, he was struggling with his eyes and stuff,” safety D.J. Smith said. “And coach was saying he had potential. He’s just been getting better and he’s been focusing a lot every single day at practice. Coach T-Rob and coach Muschamp have been a big help to him.”
The place Wilder made his mark early: special teams. Muschamp said he excelled there, and for young players in his program, that’s where trust in decision-making gets built.
“Antoine’s a physical player,” Muschamp said. “Play to your strengths and improve your weaknesses. I think he’s really recognized those things and worked on the things he’s got to do to continue to improve and help out.”
He finished his first game with five tackles on around 35 snaps.
Wilder came to USC as a three-star prospect out of Atlanta, turning down offers from Louisville and Mississippi State. He had a knee sprain and redshirted his first season on campus.
And that was a setback personally.
“It was a rough experience because you know everybody coming from high school, you know you’re big time. You’re expected to play,” Wilder said.
Now he see’s it in a different light.
“I’m kind of glad I redshirted last year because I majored in psych and I need a master’s degree, so I need another year of schooling,” he said.
His role going forward might remain situational. The Gamecocks shift and change personnel based on opposition. A high-powered passing team might demand one set of talents, while a team that tries to thump the defense needs another.
Wilder is most at home with the latter.
“T-Rob and Muschamp, they’re physical coaches and that’s my game,” Wilder said. “So I just try to do what I’m best at. I’m good at tackling, so just go, do tackling. Antoine, go hit somebody.”