Two weeks ago, Gamecock fans were excited about the return of linebacker Shaq Wilson. Two weeks later, Wilson is done. Assistant Head Coach Ellis Johnson announced that the Gamecocks are shutting down the 2009 leading tackler for the remainder of the 2010 season and apply for a medical redshirt.
"He won't play anymore this year, I don't think," Johnson said. "He could play again, but he's not going to be full speed. I really don't think even if he took two or three more weeks to get it well it would be worth the problem because it would flair right back up. So he's going to have to get off that thing and get a medical. We don't have any choice."
Wilson, who started and played a majority of the game against the Tigers, made his presence known. Wilson recovered both Auburn fumbles and had 7 tackles. Despite that, Johnson says he still wasn’t anywhere near 100%.
“He wasn't full speed against Auburn,” Johnson said. “He pulled a little bit in that game. He did a good job, he's smarter than the rest of them, he's in position to make a lot of plays, but there were a lot of plays he couldn't make and he knows it. I think he's frustrated.”
Other than the loss of Wilson the Gamecock defense will be back near 100% Saturday when the Gamecocks host #1 Alabama. DeVonte Holloman, who missed most of the second half of the Auburn game with a concussion, is expected to line up at safety beside D.J. Swearinger.
"He's had two really good days of practice,” Johnson said of Holloman. “He'll be fine. We're just very thin back there. Right now he's had a good week of practice and he's ready to go.”
The only player that will be limited is Chaz Sutton. Sutton suffered the exact same injury that Ladi Ajiboye suffered, with the difference being Ajiboye injured the tendons too.
“He’s playing full speed but it’s (club) going to limit him,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if we’ll use him other than third down to get a pass rush. It’s very hard for a defensive lineman to play with one of those things because they can’t use their hands.”
As game day approaches, the excitement and anticipation around the program continues to rise. With GameDay in Columbia and setting up in the Horseshoe, it’s impossible to keep the players away from it all. Still, Johnson says it’s just been business as usual at practice.
“I hadn’t really noticed anything on the practice field,” Johnson said. “This group is not old enough and accomplished enough to get into all that. I think what they’re trying to do is go about their work day-to-day and get ready to go.”
Johnson, who coached at Alabama twice, isn’t new to this kind of environment with the Tide. As a defensive coordinator for the Tide in 1999, Alabama went 10-3 winning the SEC Championship and playing in the Orange Bowl. Johnson, who faced the Tide for four years at Mississippi State before coming to Columbia, enjoys going up against Bama.
“I always enjoy playing them because - having been there eight years - I know the tremendous accomplishments they’ve had over the years and the great tradition and they take a lot of pride,” Johnson said. “It’s always fun to compete against the best.”
Johnson will certainly see the best running back combination in the country in Alabama’s Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Ingram, in just three games, has rushed for 361 yards and six touchdowns and will see most of the carries. Richardson, who has rushed for 431 yards and four touchdowns, will see his fair share of carries as well.
“They’re two big, strong, physical (backs) with good speed,” Johnson said. “They’re not the fastest backs we’ll play, but they both get to top-end (speed) quick. Although they might not be the fastest guys we’ll play against, at 15-20 yards their burst is just as anybody if not more so.
“The other thing is they’re always fresh,” Johnson continued. “They rotate them and neither one has a weakness in pass blocking so they don’t have to take them off the field for any reason. They can both catch the ball, they can both run with the ball, and block very well. It’s just very difficult.”
If the Gamecocks hope to contain Ingram and Richardson, they must tackle better. That’s something they didn’t do well against Auburn or last year against Bama.
“The thing that hurt us last year was in short yardage we give up a 58-yard run,” Johnson said. “Two other times we let him explode - one was for about 28 and the other about 30. That’s where that yardage piles up. He’s going to his 7’s and 8’s (yard runs) even when you’re in the right place, it’s when you let him bust out of there for 35 and 50 is what kills you. We’re going to have to hold those down to a minimum or we’re not going to have a chance.”
Ingram, who ran for 248 yards in the game, was dominant late in the game. On Alabama’s game-clinching drive, all six plays that covered 68 yards were Ingram runs, culminating in a 4-yard touchdown run with just under five minutes remaining in the game. That touchdown broke an impressive streak Johnson had against the Tide.
“It was kind of strange with that touchdown he scored in the last quarter was the first time in 16 quarters Alabama’s offense scored against my defense,” Johnson said. “It was really weird because there were games we hadn’t really stopped them, we just held on at the end to keep them out of the end zone.”
If the Gamecocks want a shot at victory against the Tide Saturday afternoon, it will take more of that. The Gamecocks have done well defensively in the red zone. In 16 trips, opponents have only scored 10 times. Only four of those have been touchdowns.
“We spend a lot of time down there (red zone),” Johnson said. “I think our players are comfortable when we get down there and they’re confident with what we’re doing. We probably spend as much time in the red zone at practice than anywhere I’ve ever been.”
“One thing I’ll say about this bunch,” Johnson continued. “I haven’t been very pleased with them overall as far as the consistency of play and some of the missed assignments and fundamentals of tackling, but their effort and competitiveness and their poise in tight situations - such as red zone - they’ve really been a bunch of fighters. I’ve been really pleased with that.”
Still, if the Gamecocks hope to hold Bama to a low score, it’s going to take that consistency that the defense has yet to show this season.
“We’ve returned a lot of players that have played a lot of football last year, but I don’t think we’ve had the leadership or the focus on the little things,” Johnson said. “I think fundamentally we don’t play well all the time and I don’t think we tackle well all the time and I think most of that is a part of discipline. I’ve still got question marks about this defense and this group of young men and how much they can do consistently the right way. That is a formula for disaster against Alabama because they’re really good fundamentally.”