ATHENS -- Shaq Wiggins hates to tackle. It goes back to his early days of playing football, in youth leagues, when bigger kids -- pretty much everyone else -- would tackle and hurt him.
So as Wiggins rose up through the ranks, still usually the smallest kid on the field, he found other ways to contribute. He used his speed. He developed instincts. And he went after the ball.
After all, there’s no need to tackle a receiver if you’ve already made an interception.
“People look at me, especially probably the opposing team, I’m already small, and probably off the bat think they can bully me,” Wiggins said. “So I just play with a chip on my shoulder. Me being so small, I try to be that much more aggressive. Just to show them that I’m a little boy, but I’m really not a little boy.”
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There haven’t been many bright spots on Georgia’s defense so far this year, but Wiggins has been one of them. The freshman cornerback became a starter the fifth game, at Tennessee, and quickly injected much-needed fire and confidence.
Too often this season, especially through the first six games, Georgia defenders looked tentative on the field, afraid to be aggressive.
But the minute Wiggins was inserted into the lineup, he made plays. He has the lone defensive touchdown for Georgia this year, a 39-yard interception return at Vanderbilt that ended up being overshadowed after Georgia blew the lead.
“If you ask me, Shaq can be one of the best cornerbacks that’s ever come through Georgia,” said fellow freshman J.J. Green, who was recruited partially as a cornerback but has played tailback this year. “Shaq’s good. He competes every day. He doesn’t wanna get beat by any wide receiver. It doesn’t matter if he gets beat, he’s gonna come back for some more. And he’s gonna trash talk you.”
Even a crusty veteran, junior linebacker Amarlo Herrera, has high praise.
“Shaq Wiggins, he’s a ball hawk. I saw it in the summer. He’s always around the ball,” Herrera said. “He can make plays on the ball. So as long as he can do that, he’s gonna be great.”
Wiggins is a trash-talking, ball-hawking freshman who doesn’t like to tackle yet is still pretty good at it. He has three tackles for loss this year, a pretty amazing stat for a cornerback who only has started three games.
That comes from having a nose for the ball and being eager to make plays. That’s what Georgia’s defense sorely needed, which is why defensive coordinator Todd Grantham inserted Wiggins into the lineup.
“That’s the way you wanna play,” Grantham said. “He’ll come up and force on the run. He’ll do that. He’s relentless in his approach; he’s not afraid to go try and pull the pin and make a play.”
Grantham points out Wiggins was close to another interception against Vanderbilt and just ended up with a deflection.
“He’s gonna make those kinds of plays because he’s a good player; he’s instinctive; his eyes are where they’re gonna need to be,” Grantham said. “And he’s gonna do nothing but get better. I enjoy coaching the guy. He wants to get better. I think he’s got a real bright future.”
Wiggins was a consensus four-star recruit coming out of Sandy Creek in suburban Atlanta. He committed early to Georgia, then wavered a bit, considering Auburn, before re-committing and joining the team this past summer.
Wiggins is a student of other cornerbacks, especially in the NFL, modeling himself after Washington’s DeAngelo Hall. Both are around the same size -- Wiggins is only 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds -- and both are very talkative. Hall is one of the NFL’s top trash-talkers, and Wiggins is unabashed in emulating that.
“I can’t just play football and be quiet. So I have to keep talking,” he said..
But there’s a good football reason for it, Wiggins claimed.
“I’ll already be tired, so I talk to other players, talk a little smack, so I can keep my mind off being tired,” he said. “If anything, just talking to keep me going.”