Dalton Wilson is in the unenviable position of following a crowd favorite who was also a darned good football player.
He's ready for it.
"Patrick was great," South Carolina's presumed starting fullback said at the program's annual Media Day. "I wouldn't be nearly the football player I am today if it wasn't for Pat. He taught me just about everything."
Including how to be Patrick DiMarco?
"Well … not quite," Wilson said, getting the joke.
It's not doubting the abilities of the redshirt junior but more realizing what USC has lost. DiMarco was a two-time captain who could block and catch with equal aplomb. Built like a fire hydrant, able to bulldoze enemy linebackers or defensive tackles so his tailbacks could find room, and also equipped with baby-soft hands that sprung 38 career receptions, 302 yards and six touchdowns, DiMarco won the hearts of several thousand throughout his career. Shoot, he even had blonde hair and blue eyes.
Last year, when tight end Weslye Saunders was dismissed from the team in the preseason, DiMarco made sure the absence wouldn't be felt by becoming a hybrid fullback/H-back. Relying on a chemistry from constant practice sessions, and perhaps from being a former roommate, it seemed like quarterback Stephen Garcia would always find DiMarco as a check-down option if his primaries were covered.
DiMarco seemed to have a gift for scoring the momentum-turning touchdown, such as when he turned around, hauled in a wheel-route pass from Garcia and ducked into the corner of Clemson's end zone. That put the Gamecocks ahead and was part of 29 unanswered points after the Tigers had drawn first blood. Plays like that, at USC, define legends, not just good players.
Wilson knows all about it. He played with DiMarco for three years, even when he was a redshirt freshman linebacker in 2008 before moving to fullback. He knows all about the tough act he's following.
So he's used to the questions. Most of which that say, "Can you be like him?"
"I know most people have never seen me catch a pass, but I'd say I have pretty decent hands," Wilson said. "Whatever they need me to do. I know it's going to be mostly blocking, but if the time comes for a pass, I'd be willing to do that."
Wilson is fully recovered from a shoulder surgery that cost him the spring, but is ready to go. He's listed as the starter and his backup, Matt Coffee, has sat out the past few days of practice with an injury, so Wilson is getting the majority of snaps.
"I feel like he deserves it," running backs coach Jay Graham recently said. "He's a guy that's key, as far as in this mix of guys, to see if he can do it."
A former linebacker from tiny Williston, Wilson figured his football career was probably over when he didn't receive any offers out of high school. He talked with some of the state's smaller programs, but still didn't receive an actual offer, so he enrolled at USC as a student.
"I had pretty much made up my mind that I wanted to go to a big school, regardless of whether I played football or not," Wilson said. "Then coach (Shane) Beamer was in charge of recruiting my area and my high school coach gave him some film, saying, 'If he wanted to walk on, would you be willing to have him?' He said, 'Sure.'"
Wilson reported for duty, knowing he was probably likely to get his head kicked in five days a week in practice before maybe making one play in his fifth year. He redshirted his first year, switched to fullback and got to play in 2009 and 2010, but usually on special teams as DiMarco handled the full-time fullback role.
But DiMarco was leaving, and Wilson still had two years of eligibility. It wasn't a day Wilson had marked on his calendar or anything, but he knew this was his opportunity.
"If you'd have told me where I'd be 10 years ago, five years ago, I wouldn't have believed you, but the Lord works in mysterious ways sometimes," he said. "I'm really enjoying it. They gave me a lot of opportunities here that other schools wouldn't have, so I really appreciate that. I'm trying to do everything they ask of me."
So far, so good. He's living up to DiMarco's path in terms of work ethic. Once the games come around, he's confident he can do that as well.
And if it doesn't turn out quite like his predecessor, Wilson will be OK with it. The way he figures it, his final two years are going to have him in the spotlight no matter how few passes he catches. Somebody's got to be the hole-opener for tailback Marcus Lattimore.
"That's something you can tell your grandkids about. You were the lead blocker for a Heisman Trophy winner," Wilson reverently said. "He's by far the most talented back I've ever seen. He's got an excellent opportunity to do great things this year, including win a Heisman.
"The majority of the time, we're more pass-protectors, but every now and then, we're going to be that safety valve when it opens up. I think I can fit right into that role well if I need be."
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