COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- With just under six minutes left in the third quarter and the Texas A&M offense retreating to the bench after a touchdown drive that gave the Aggies a seven-point lead over South Carolina Gamecocks, safety Donovan Wilson gave his offensive teammates a fair warning: Don’t get too comfortable.
“He came up to us before that drive and said 'Y'all don't sit on the bench, because I'm about to get the ball back for us,'” A&M offensive tackle Germain Ifedi recalled.
The sophomore made good on his promise soon thereafter, although he did all the work, stepping in front of a Perry Orth pass and taking it 60 yards to the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-point lead the Aggies would not relinquish in its 35-28 victory over the Gamecocks on Saturday at Kyle Field.
Wilson’s interception return for a score would not be his only big play of the day. When South Carolina retained possession late in the game trailing by seven, he ended the Gamecocks’ chances for good with a second interception with 46 seconds left.
The day was indicative of Wilson’s season-long exploits for the Aggies. He is tied with Alabama’s Eddie Jackson for the SEC lead in interceptions (five), is tied for second in the SEC in forced fumbles (three), has six tackles for loss, two sacks and has recovered two fumbles.
“Donovan Wilson continues to make plays,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said afterward.
It has been quite the breakout season for the Shreveport, La., product. After playing mostly a reserve and special teams role as a true freshman, he didn’t earn his first start until the Aggies’ 2014 finale, their AutoZone Liberty Bowl win over West Virginia. He had a team-high nine tackles in that game, had a strong offseason and an impressive start to 2015 with two sacks, two forced fumbles, three tackles for loss and a pass breakup in the Aggies’ Sept. 5 win over Arizona State. He has had at least one forced fumble, fumble recovery or interception in seven of Texas A&M's eight games.
As the season progressed and Wilson continued to make plays, he reminded defensive coordinator John Chavis of a diminutive, playmaking defensive back he coached at LSU who also seemed to have a knack for being around the football at critical times.
“Tyrann Mathieu is a young man I had the opportunity to coach at another place, and he was that kind of guy,” Chavis said last month. “He had the 'it' factor. If you tell me to describe it, I can't. But he had the 'it' factor, and we're starting to see some of that with Donovan. It's special to have a guy like that.”
Chavis isn’t the only one on the team making that comparison.
“We look to him when we're looking for plays,” Ifedi said. “He's all over the field making plays. He's kind of like the ‘Honey Badger’ of our defense. We know when he says he's going to make a play, he's going to make a play.”
Wilson’s defensive teammates aren’t surprised by his game day performances.
“Y'all are a lot more amazed than we are,” linebacker A.J. Hilliard said. “We're around him every day. He's a ball hawk. We see him in practice; he does the same thing in practice that he does on game day. It's not as surprising to us at all.”
Wilson is among a trio of safeties who have consistently produced for the Aggies this season. A position of weakness in recent seasons, the combination of Wilson, sophomore Armani Watts and junior college transfer Justin Evans have been “all over the field” and “continue to play at a high level and really clean up some things that maybe are real issues for us,” Sumlin said Saturday. Combined with an improved defensive line in terms of talent and depth, it has allowed the Aggies to take steps forward as a defense this season.
One of the latest commitments in the Aggies’ 2014, recruiting class, Wilson was an under-the-radar prospect. After Texas A&M pursued -- unsuccessfully -- some of the state’s top safeties in that recruiting cycle, they uncovered Wilson, a three-star recruit who was committed to Utah. He flipped his commitment to the Aggies four days before national signing day. As the lowest-ranked prospect in A&M’s 22-man 2014 signing class, Wilson is turning out to be one of A&M’s best finds.
“He's a player,” Ifedi said. “He's come a long way. He came in here on a mission and has gotten better week to week.”
Asked about his ability to consistently be in the right place at the right time, Wilson doesn't say much. He doesn't have to. His play speaks for itself.
"I'm just out there trying to do my job," he said.