Almost exactly one year ago, D.J. Wonnum had the high point of his junior season with South Carolina football.
Playing at home against Tennessee for the first time since suffering an injury in the first game of the season, Wonnum had three tackles and two sacks, including one that turned the Volunteers over on downs and sealed the comeback win for the Gamecocks.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a three-down front, just came off the edge pretty much and made a play for my teammates. It was a great feeling,” Wonnum recalled ahead of this Saturday’s game against Tennessee.
It was one of only a few great moments on the field for Wonnum in 2018 — he re-aggravated the ankle injury he suffered in the season-opener several weeks later against FCS Chattanooga and wound up missing the rest of the year, including USC’s rivalry game with Clemson and the Belk Bowl.
Those two sacks he recorded against UT wound up being the only ones he had all year, after leading the team with six as a sophomore.
“Oh definitely, it was a low point, especially getting back and getting hurt again, that was a real low point,” Wonnum said. “But just being out here this year is a real great feeling.”
In his senior year, Wonnum has returned to the form that made him one of the top edge rushers in the SEC two seasons ago. While fellow lineman Javon Kinlaw has earned much of the All-American and NFL draft buzz, Wonnum is right behind in sacks (4.5) and leads him and the entire team in tackles for loss (7.5). He also leads the defensive line in tackles, with 25.
And after all he went through last year, this season has been an exercise in gratitude.
“It just makes me want to go harder now. Sitting out is not a great feeling, and just sitting out and seeing what it feels to be be in that position, it makes me want to go harder this year,” Wonnum said.
“It makes me appreciate it a lot. It kind of wakes me up and motivates me just to go out there and do my best, because some people can’t play.”
It’s also earned him a nomination for the Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year, a national honor given to three players on all levels of college football who have overcome injury, illness or some other challenge. Three winners will be announced from the nominees at the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the season.
“I don’t know that there’s enough adjectives I have to describe D.J. Wonnum and the type of young man he is, what he stands for,” coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s a really good football player, and he’s an even better person.”
Returning to Tennessee this weekend, Wonnum will be going up against a team he’s dominated — he also had two sacks against the Vols as a sophomore. And he’ll be doing it at a place where he has some history too. At Neyland Stadium in 2017, Wonnum bumped Tennessee kicker Brent Cimaglia after a play, and Cimaglia shoved him, appearing ready to fight, despite being more than 50 pounds lighter.
“That was weird because I honestly didn’t see it coming,” Wonnum said. “I think I bumped him or something like that. I think that’s what happened, but I don’t really remember.”
He’s more focused on this year, going up against a Tennessee team with an uncertain quarterback situation. That mindset extends to the Comeback Player of the Year award too.
“I’m not finished, I still got work to do, I still got things to do for my team. So (the nomination is) a good honor, but I still got more,” Wonnum said.