FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – At times this season, Tyler Wilson has looked anything but comfortable in the pocket.
The Arkansas quarterback admitted as much following a win over Tulsa last week, a game in which Wilson endured a series of crushing hits from the Golden Hurricane defense. Some were to his chest, others at his legs and hip — leaving Wilson limping several times afterward and his head shaking.
Defenses have declared open season this year on Wilson, who has grown accustomed to taking shots during his second year as the starter. They've been the product of a patchwork offensive line and an injury-riddled offensive unit that's learned pass protection through on-the-job training.
It's a test that becomes even more difficult this weekend when the Razorbacks (4-5, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) travel to face a South Carolina team that leads the SEC in sacks. Led by defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 12 Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2) have 30 sacks this season — a fact Arkansas interim coach John L. Smith is well aware of.
"We have to protect him," Smith said. "And he has to do a better job, or I'll have to do a better job of getting him protected.
"These guys this week, it's not like they're a blitz-a-mania team, but they're awful good up front. They can get after you. We have to really stress making sure that we get those guys blocked."
Enduring a season's worth of punishment is nothing new for Wilson, whose first season as a starter last year was marred by a number of big hits. The senior missed the second half of a game last season with concussion-like symptoms, and he missed a game and a half earlier this season with a concussion.
Against Tulsa, Wilson once again absorbed more than his fair share of punishment when he took a helmet to the chest from Tulsa defensive end Jared St. John and was driven backward into the ground.
And that was just the first play of the game.
Wilson slowly stood up from the hit, which resulted in a 19-yard completion to Cobi Hamilton, and led the Razorbacks to a 19-15 win by throwing for 272 yards on 21-of-31 passing. It was the first of several clean hits suffered by Wilson throughout the game — leaving fans in Razorback Stadium gasping after each one.
"Through my entire career here there's been a number of times where I've taken some licks," Wilson said. "That's the way it's going to be. I know that."
The senior, last season's first-team All-SEC quarterback, leads the conference this season with an average of 315.8 yards passing — but the hits have taken their toll. He threw a wobbly interception against Tulsa in the first half after not setting his feet before a throw, and he's already thrown more interceptions this season (8) than he did all of last year (6).
"I've got to have faith in my guys and stand up there and battle with them, fight them," Wilson said. "I've got to stand in and do my job.
"A lot of what I do is not worrying about what they're doing up front. I've got to have faith and trust that my guys are going to battle. I know they will, because we have pride. That's the way I look at it, and I'm going to find a way to get it in my guys' hands."
Wilson could have a difficult time standing his ground Saturday against South Carolina, which had a season-high eight sacks in a win over Kentucky on Sept. 29. Clowney leads the Gamecocks with 8.5 sacks, but 11 others have also joined in the sack parade.
The Gamecocks struggled to stop the pass in their last game, a 38-35 win over Tennessee two weeks ago. They allowed 381 yards passing and had just one sack, and coach Steve Spurrier expects a similar test from Wilson and the Razorbacks.
"We obviously have worked on it for a couple of weeks now, and we'll find out if we've made any progress," Spurrier said. "Because Arkansas, they're the best passing team in the conference right now."
Smith said the breakdowns in the Razorbacks' offensive line have been both mental and physical, but "the mental ones are the ones we can't live with." Arkansas has started two former walk-ons, David Hurd and Tyler Deacon, on the line throughout the season, but guard Alvin Bailey isn't accepting any excuses.
The Razorbacks allowed only one sack last week against Tulsa, which entered the game leading the country in the category, but it was the other hits that left Arkansas concerned.
"Whether it's a sack, a late hit or just a hurry, we want to keep people off our quarterback," Bailey said. "One sack is too many, but having six or seven hits on (Wilson), we have to eliminate those."
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.