Shaq is back. Shaq Wilson, that is.
USC’s junior linebacker, who missed the first three games of the season with a hamstring injury, returned to practice Monday night in a yellow jersey, but coaches and players are anticipating he’ll be ready to play in No. 12 USC’s huge SEC road game against No. 17 Auburn.
“They told me to take it easy, but I felt great,” said Wilson after practice ended. “There ain’t no doubt in my mind I am going to play.”
He received the OK to practice from USC trainers along with his practice jersey, and last season’s leading tackler couldn’t wait to put it on.
“Finally, my leg was able to heal up and I was able to do the things I am able to do,” he said.
Wilson injured the hamstring at the start of August camp, which basically sidelined him until his clearance. Every minute of his absence has been tough on him, although he kept doing everything he had to do to get ready.
“Nah, I don’t want to wait at all. I didn’t want to wait from the day I got hurt. I was trying to play on it the next day,” he said. “I have been working out every day, still going to all the meetings, still listening and learning new things, sharpening my pencil. I am ready to go out and make plays.”
Defensive assistant coach Shane Beamer was thrilled to see Wilson back practicing, even if it wasn’t too intense.
“He didn’t get a whole lot done. He did a lot of stuff with (strength and conditioning) Coach (Craig) Fitzgerald,” Beamer said. “But it sounds like he’ll be good to go (Tuesday). Between him and Antonio (Allen being back), we’ve got a bunch of happy coaches right now.”
Wilson, who doesn’t expect to start Saturday, gave himself a thumbs-up.
“I was able to do everything they asked me to do, and I felt 100 percent. I feel like I can do everything. The coaches kept me in shape,” he said. “I am ready to go out here tomorrow and show Coach (Ellis) Johnson and all the coaches I am ready to play.”
Fellow linebacker Rodney Paulk can’t wait to have Wilson alongside him at Auburn.
“It’d be real big,” Paulk said. “As we’ve said before, he is the quarterback of the defense. He’s the leader of the defense. To have him would be a major extra point for us.”
Battle of the unbeatens
South Carolina’s defenders know they’ll have their hands full with Auburn (3-0), especially 6-foot-6, 250-pound quarterback Cam Newton, who has passed for 525 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 309 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s a big dude with a strong arm so we’ve definitely got to stay in coverage a little bit longer just in case he decides to throw it or scramble and throw,” safety DeVonte Holloman said. “He can do both so we’re just going to play our assignments.”
Paulk added the Gamecocks will not be able to key on one or the other in the Auburn attack.
“We’re going to play our game. Auburn has a great offense. They’re real good at the run and the pass,” Paulk said. “We’re going to continue to work each and every day on our run stoppage and pass (defense). In order to be a great defense, you’ve got to do well at both.”
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has a greater concern after watching Furman receiver Adam Mims catch a 72-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and a 47-yard pass on the next series.
“We can’t give up the big plays. We’ve given up too many big plays in three ballgames,” Ward said. “The guys understand that we’ve got to do better and make sure we get everybody on the same page. We’ll get it worked out.”
The return of spur Antonio Allen, who missed the first two games with a hamstring injury, was a welcome sight to Beamer, who said the junior played 22 plays in his return against Furman.
“He made a lot of plays or was in on a lot of plays,” Beamer said. “Execution-wise, he was OK. There weren’t a lot of mental errors or anything like that. He did a good job for his first game back.”
Beamer expects Allen to be on the field for many more plays against Auburn.
Hitting the road
Beamer believes the Gamecocks are ready for the challenge of playing away from Williams-Brice Stadium for the first time this season. They understand it’s not going to be easy to defeat the Tigers in front of a large, hostile crowd.
“We talked to them today, to be a great SEC team, you’ve got to go and win on the road,” Beamer said. “That’s our mindset. Obviously, we’re playing a great opponent in Auburn. It’ll be a great atmosphere and a great environment. I know it’s kind of a cliché, but that’s why you come to South Carolina, (and) that’s why you come to the SEC to play in games like this.”