by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
Hometown: Redford (MI)
Position: Wide Receiver/Safety/Outside Linebacker
Star rating: Three-star, No. 98 WR
Ht/Wt: 6-2, 205 pounds
Other offers: Army, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Illinois, West Virginia, Syracuse, Toledo, Oregon
What’s to like
One of the more interesting nuggets about Wilson’s recruitment—a process that featured a rapid rise up the Midwest prospect rankings during his junior season at Lee. M Thurston high school—is the implied understanding between Wilson and NU coaches throughout their courtship of an eventual position switch. It’s one thing to convince a high school player to play his position of comfort in the confines of your college system—you know, the same position that led to your courtship in the first place. It’s another matter entirely to stipulate a position change as part of the commitment. Wilson’s interest in NU, as a program, team and institution, overrode those concerns, and it appears he will play linebacker for the Wildcats.
He was a two-way player in high school, operating mostly at wide out and safety, so the switch isn’t anything too out of the ordinary. Get on campus, locate the weight room, take full advantage of your scholarship-afforded meal plan, add a few pounds—pretty boilerplate stuff. In high school, Wilson’s versatility meant he was able to play several positions, one of them being outside linebacker. He’s no stranger to the position, and while he may have spent the majority of his pre-teen and high school football life concerning himself with the passing game, both at safety and receiver, football players with high football IQ’s have played most every position by the time they’re recruited. Wilson’s lofty status in recruiting circles was in large part a result of his versatility, a catch-all descriptor loaded with position-changing implications. It’s what NU and all the other schools in the Wilson recruiting hunt saw in him, that his flexibility could be used in different ways at different spots on the field. Whether linebacker was his position of choice upon signing with NU, coach Fitzgerald and staff feel his value with the Wildcats as currently constructed is best served at linebacker.
The good news is that Wilson was heavily involved in the run game whenever he lined up at safety, earning praise for his sound tackling and aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage. As a wide out, what shows up on tape is his toughness after the catch and his strength in fighting through arm tackles. Playing receiver isn’t necessarily optimal preparation for an eventual switch to linebacker, but it’s certainly a position that requires athleticism, which is precisely what makes this year’s linebacking corps—David Nwabuisi, Colin Ellis, Damien Proby, Chi Chi Ariguzo—arguably one of the Big Ten’s best. All four players cover tons of space and track down ballcarriers that might otherwise elude a slower and less-athletic group. Wilson, who no doubt runs, jumps and covers ground like a safety, fits the current NU linebacker mold, where speed, range and instinctual play are baseline necessities.
Prospects for next season
The linebacking corps is far from a chief concern heading into the upcoming season, with three returning starters and a handful of solid depth pieces. At best, the unit will hold together NU’s otherwise weak defense, even inspire a greater level of performance from the secondary. There shouldn’t be any sort of immediate need for Wilson’s services unless the linebackers turn out to be far less stout than their talent, depth and experience would suggest. If the group underperforms and reinforcements are in high demand, Wilson just may get the call. His skill set and physical characteristics are well-suited to the NU linebacking culture, and if his performance in preseason camp warrants a spot in the LB rotation, then Fitzgerald would be hurting his team’s chances by not playing him.
The counterargument—which, by all means, is a sensible one—against playing Wilson is that the position switch requires adjustment time, and that his current bodily characteristics will restrict him from playing his anticipated position at a high level. Remember, he’s still just 205 pounds. When you’re trying to bring down backs like Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State), Rex Burkhead (Nebraska) and Silas Redd (Penn State), being undersized is not the smartest or safest approach. Wilson may be better served devoting a year to furthering his physical and mental development under the guidance of NU coaches and training staff, then gearing up for a bigger and more prominent defensive role next season once Nwabuisi’s graduation provides a clearer path to more snaps and a potential starters workload at outside linebacker. It’s highly unlikely that playing as a true freshman will hinder Wilson’s development, though the more prudent strategy may include a redshirt season. In 2013, when the need for Wilson’s services will be greater, he can begin his career with a larger workload and a four-year window where his total snap count and accumulated value will be maximized.
It’s never easy to predict how high school players will acclimate themselves to the college game. Some are quick learners, needing little adjustment time, while others require a year—or more—to get a feel for the challenges and requirements of the college game, to slowly ease their way into the student-athlete lifestyle and all that it entails. Wilson certainly looks like a player with a quick learning curve, but there’s no way of knowing for sure. He could use training camp as a means to prove his immediate readiness for significant playing time. He may opt to redshirt right away, per usual with true freshmen. Or something in between. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how his first year with the Wildcats plays out.
What he’s saying
“I like their coaches a lot. Their campus was really nice. They have their own beach, that was pretty cool,” Wilson said after his summer visit to Northwestern.
What they’re saying
“He’s got that size and athleticism, that speed that can make an impact at any position. That’s what’s special about him and that’s what Pat Fitzgerald looks for in certain recruits: that versatility.”—Chris Emma, PurpleWildcats.com publisher, said last November after Wilson became the NU’s 18th verbal commitment of its 2012 class.