To be clear, defensive head Ellis Johnson has no reservations about starting Shaq Wilson, even though the linebacker has only practiced one and a half times this preseason. There are things that Wilson does and has done that have earned that right, despite the hamstring pull that won't go away.
But it always pays to have a contingency plan.
"I do see it as an opportunity," sophomore linebacker Quin Smith said on Wednesday. "I just want to do as best as I can and be ready for the game if I have to go in, but I hope (Wilson's) ready."
Smith wasn't selling himself short, although he is on his third position in two years and spent 2009 as mostly a special-teamer. When Johnson is talking about the intelligence Wilson possesses -- he even joked that NFL rookie Eric Norwood recalled a few times when Wilson told him to get in position -- it would be tough for anyone to automatically take over that role.
Although Smith isn't afraid. Johnson has endorsed him as the backup if Wilson can't go, although there is still a week to go before the season-opener.
"Right now, Quin is just a nose ahead of Tony (Straughter), but they would split time," Johnson said on Tuesday. "They've both had a pretty good four or five days. I wouldn't feel uncomfortable about them."
After beginning his USC career at safety, they moving to spur, then to linebacker, Smith is experiencing a quick rise on the depth chart. Although he didn't have a large number of snaps last year, Smith played in 11 of 13 games and made his name on two punts -- one that Arkansas tried to fake and he short-circuited, and another he blocked against Connecticut.
With Wilson unable to get fully healthy during camp, the door has been propped open. Yes, Johnson trusts Wilson to play at full ability despite missing so much practice, but if Wilson isn't cleared, somebody has to be out there.
Thus far, Smith has the edge. An outside linebacker and strong safety in high school, Smith averaged 17 tackles per game; he hasn't forgotten how to perform.
Plus, he has a good teacher.
"Shaq's out there mentoring me all day, every day, just helping me with all the little stuff in case he's not there, but coach helps us out too," Smith said. "Hopefully I'll get in there and show coach what I got."
Replacing Norwood on the edge is close to impossible, but replacing the position of Will linebacker is doable. Smith and Straughter have gotten their chances with Wilson taking in practice clad in a yellow jersey, and with Thursday being an off day, that's one day closer to Smith winning the gig for Sept. 2.
Odds are, Wilson will start. But if that hamstring acts up, the backup will get the call.
"I wouldn't really say it's a competition, I would say it's more of a brothership," Smith said, speaking of the battle between Straughter and himself. "We're both trying to help the team and make each other better."
"I think I've been doing well," Straughter said earlier in camp. "I still need a lot of improvement. I need to be more consistent, not make the same mistakes over and over. Like coach Johnson tells me, it's the little things. I'm not missing big things, just the little things. Things I should have known since day one coming here."
Johnson is concerned about how Wilson's leadership and poise will be replaced, but feels good about the production. The coach isn't known for telling tales out of school, and when he says Smith has the lead, it's time to believe it.
Not that Smith is hoping words will carry over a week of practice.
"I'm just in there trying to work and get better," he said." I'm not really worried about competition, just trying to get better."
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