With his 5-foot-11, 194-pound frame, Shaq Wilson doesn't look like a SEC linebacker, at least not yet anyways.
But USC defensive coordinator Ellis has discovered one important characteristic about the freshman from Jacksonville - he can play football.
And play it very well.
With spring practice now past the halfway mark, Johnson described Wilson recently as probably the most pleasant surprise on defense through the first eight practices.
"He's a good young player with good natural instincts," Johnson said. "He's really picked things up fast. He's pretty sharp mentally. He's really done a very good job. He's very undersized right now and he needs to get bigger, but I've really been pleased with him. It seems like he has a good day every time he comes out here."
Wilson graduated in December from First Coast High School after a stellar career there and enrolled at USC with the hope of making an impact this spring and taking the first step towards earning playing time in the fall.
Wilson had 116 tackles, including three sacks, three interceptions and four forced fumbles while leading First Coast, a football power in the Jacksonville area, to an 11-3 record and the district title.
"He came out of a really good high school program," Johnson said. "He's been coached well. Most of the time, when a kid comes in and can play and adapt that quickly, he's usually from a pretty good program, has been coached well and has good fundamentals and instincts, things you don't have to spend a lot of time on.
"Even when he takes a wrong step and gets himself in trouble, he gets back out of it quickly. He has great footwork and body control. His shoulder pads stay low and he's usually in good football position. He gives great effort and he finishes."
Wilson was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Jacksonville area by the Florida Times-Union newspaper. Rivals.com rated him the 26th-best outside linebacker prospect nationally.
But Wilson is not alone among USC's young defensive players when it comes to impressing Johnson. He is also delighted with the progress of young cornerbacks Addison Williams, a sophomore from Atlanta, and Akeem Auguste, a true freshman from Hollywood, Fla.
"Both of those kids have real good coverage skills," Johnson said. "I'm really impressed with them. They've really jumped out at me."
Williams appeared in 10 games last season and made one start, earning more playing time as the 2007 campaign progressed. He finished with eight tackles. Auguste, rated by Rivals.com as a four-star prospect and the 14th best cornerback in the nation, is one of three newcomers that played last fall at Fork Union Military Academy.
While Johnson is excited about the development of Wilson, Williams and Auguste, he's concerned with how some of his veteran players have performed this spring.
Granted, the USC defense is missing key components like linebacker Jasper Brinkley, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and defensive tackle Nathan Pepper and linebacker Marvin Sapp, but Johnson insists USC must persevere until those players return.
"I'm concerned that having several starters out is going to hurt our continuity and our progress," Johnson said. "You'd like to see all of those guys in there together, but there will be time for that in the fall. It will help our depth. There's no question Brinkley will help with our toughness in the middle.
In the meantime, Johnson maintains some veteran players must improve the level of their performance if they want to keep their place on the depth chart.
"I'm very disappointed in some of our older players on this team. They don't finish plays," Johnson said. "They pull up short. When they're not involved in the play and it goes away from them, they'll take time off. Until we get that stopped, we're going to lose close ballgames and we're not going to finish with winning seasons.
"We're going to stay on them and I'm going to demand it. If they don't do it, I'm not going to play them. When you have young kids coming in that understand what it means, the others need to get with it."
One Johnson decision that has paid immediate dividends has been the return of Cliff Matthews to defensive end and the move of Eric Norwood to outside linebacker. Norwood, though, must drop some weight to remain productive.
"There's no question Cliff is in the right place," Johnson said. "He and Ladi (Ajiboye) are real destructive and disruptive up there. They make a lot of plays."
Johnson said Ajiboye, who started 10 games last season and earned Freshman All-America honors after making 39 tackles, was the best Gamecock defender on the field in last Saturday's first scrimmage at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"I know Brad (Lawing) feels like he's had a real good spring," Johnson said.
Norwood has been one of USC's best defensive players the last two seasons (99 total tackles and 13 sacks) from his defensive end position. But Johnson felt the Gamecocks could make better use of his pass-rushing skills when he's standing up and harassing the quarterback from the perimeter, as well as take advantage of his speed defending the flat.
"Eric has picked up (playing outside linebacker) pretty well. When he loses a little weight and gets down to about 250 (pounds), he'll really be a more mobile player," Johnson said. "I've seen him in space a couple of times and I really like what I saw. He's learning how to drop out in some zone blitzes and playing the curl flat as an outside linebacker.
"He's made some very good breaks on the football. He's becoming very comfortable out there. We're certainly going to keep enough in the package to bring him off the edge with blitzing too."
Johnson says he's been adding a new wrinkle or two every day for the defense to decipher. When he does, it's up to the coaches to teach it and for the players to grasp it and put it into action.
"Every time we put something in I see that hesitation in learning," Johnson said. "We don't know exactly what to do on some of the new things we've put in.
A few days ago, Johnson expressed concern about USC's lack of physical and mental toughness on defense. But he says he's going to keep striving until the Gamecocks show considerable improvement in that area.
"If you want to pick corn on Saturday, you plant corn. You don't plant strawberries," Johnson said. "If you don't work and play physical during the week, you're not going to flip a light switch on and all of a sudden become a tough guy. It's as much mental as it is physical. I'm not as concerned about our players being physically tough enough. We have talent and some speed. We have kids that belong in this league. But they have to get an attitude and an air (of confidence) about them."
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