Can Russell Wilson Lead Wisconsin Past Nebraska?

| by

I’m an SEC girl. Let me explain what this means. I moved to Florida in 1990, Steve Spurrier’s first year as head coach of the Gators. It was an exciting time for college football in the state; Florida State was on their way to being one of the most successful teams in the decade and Miami was in the midst of National Championships and had a swagger that captivated the country. And then there was Florida. A team that had a rocky 80’s, marred by 107 NCAA infractions in 1984, but now was being coached by one of their favorite sons and first Heisman trophy winner.

Most kids chose one from the three, and stuck with it. Like in any region of the country, when you choose your team, you choose your conference. It’s just the way it works. You become more familiar with these teams based off of traditions, rivalries, frequency, and so forth. I chose Florida and the Southeastern Conference. The only team I mostly paid much attention to out of the SEC was Florida State, but that was mainly out of disgust. Other than that, I didn’t follow ACC or Big 10 teams; I was loyal to the SEC.

Fast forward to my “grown up” years. I was still more familiar with the SEC than other conferences, I rooted for them in bowl games (I admit, there were more than a few times I didn’t root for Georgia, but that’s another discussion) I was thrilled that the SEC was donned “The Best”, even though the argument always came from those Big Ten-ners that they had the tradition and, of course, Ohio State. After Florida blew them out for the 2006 National Championship, I moved to Big Ten Country, Northwest Indiana to be exact. The Ohio State rhetoric was in full force across the region. That year, the Buckeyes lost the National Championship once again to an SEC school, this time LSU. A couple years later I moved to Central Illinois and again, Ohio State was largely the only team being talked about, even though the state of Illinois has two Big Ten schools of their own.

Then in 2010 the unthinkable happened: Ohio State was dethroned by Wisconsin. Instantly, I liked the Badgers.

After the season, quarterback Scott Tolzien left for the NFL, and there was a gaping hole in Madison. Enter a kid I had never heard of, Russell Wilson.

Wilson was born in Richmond, VA and attended the preparatory school, Collegiate School. In 2005, his junior year, he threw for 3,287 yards and 40 touchdowns and added another 634 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. He was named an all-district, all-region, and all-state player as well as named the Richmond Times-Dispatch Player of the Year. His senior year was just as remarkable; he threw for 3,009 yards, 34 touchdowns, and seven interceptions while rushing for 1,132 yards and 18 touchdowns. That year, he was named the conference player of the year, all-conference and all-state player and was featured in Sports Illustrated for his performance in the state championship game. But Wilson had another love, baseball.

After being drafted in the 41rst round of the 2007 MLB June Amateur Draft by the Baltimore Orioles, Wilson decided to attend North Carolina State instead. He redshirted his first year on the football team, but participated in the spring of 2008 on the diamond for the Wolfpack as an infielder and right handed pitcher.

At the end of his first football season in 2008, Wilson became the first freshman ever to be named the first-team All-ACC quarterback and was also named the league’s Rookie of the Year. He threw 249 straight passes without an interception, and threw just one pick (a desperation heave that came near the end of the Clemson game) in 275 attempts on the season as he finished for 1,955 yards and 17 touchdowns. He added 394 yards on 166 carries and four touchdowns.

A preseason candidate for the 2009 O’Brien, Manning and Maxwell Awards, Wilson finished his sophomore effort ranked fourth nationally in touchdown passes with 31, while posting 3,287 yards of total offense. Dating back from the Clemson game in 2008 to the Wake Forest game his second season, he attempted 379 straight passes without an interception and was named to the All-ACC Academic Football team and as an honorable mention All-ACC Performer.

In the spring of 2010, Wilson decided to forego spring football for the opportunity to play baseball for NC State. His decision seemed to pay off in June when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Colorado Rockies, but the excitement was short-lived.

The following day, Russell’s father, Harrison Wilson III, a lawyer, former football and baseball star at Dartmouth, and a diabetic, died at 55. Russell spent 32 games as a second baseman with the Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, WA before deciding to continue as a two-sport athlete. He returned to Raleigh to play football, a decision that would require him to pay back much of his $250,000 signing bonus.

A couple of months later, he was once again named to the preseason lists for the O’Brien and Manning Awards and was elected team captain by his teammates. He led the Wolfpack to a 9-4 season that included a win over West Virginia in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl. Wilson ended his junior season first in the ACC with 274.1 passing yards per game and in total offense with 307.5 yards per game. He threw for 3,563 yards with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, and rushed for 435 yards and 9 TDs. He earned the team’s Governor’s Award as the Most Valuable Performer, the only award voted on by the entire team, and was named a second-team All-ACC performer for 2010, missing the first team by two votes. Yet with all his successes on the football field, the diamond called him once again.

Russell had received an undergraduate degree from NC State,and in the spring of 2011 asked for and was granted a scholarship release from head football coach, Tom O’Brien. The 19th prospect in the Rockies system was assigned to the Asheville Tourists in the South Atlantic League where he played second base and batted .228 with a fielding percentage of .978.

Like his father, Harrison, (a WR who in 1980 made it to the final preseason game with the San Diego Chargers only after he’d completed law school at Virginia) Russell won’t give up on any dream until he has to, he had to decide if he wanted to stay in the Rockies farm system or decide to return to football. Since he was released from his scholarship from NC State, the question became if he chose football, where would he transfer to? Because he had graduated with a Communications degree, he was able to transfer to another school without having to sit out a year—as long as he chose a master’s program not offered by his former school.  There were clearly two possibilities, Auburn and Wisconsin.

Wilson set the deadline for his decision as July 1. On June 27th, he was scheduled to make his announcement on ESPN’s College Football Live show, but word leaked out to sources at ESPN and it was reported on Twitter that Wilson had an answer: he chose to complete his master’s program in educational leadership at Wisconsin.

The reputation and tradition of the Badger offensive line played a part in his decision to choose Wisconsin over Auburn as head coach, Bret Bielema said at a press conference the day after the decision. Suddenly, Wisconsin was back in the mix as favorites to win the Big 10 conference.

In his debut as the leader of the reining conference champions, Wilson lived up to expectations, passing for 255 yards and 2 touchdowns and added 62 rushing yards, including a 46 yard touchdown run in the 51-17 victory over UNLV. In his second start as a Badger, Wilson went 17-of-21 for 189 yards and three touchdowns as Wisconsin shutout Oregon State 35-0. The following week, Wilson threw his first and only interception on the season so far in a 49-7 win over Northern Illinois as he completed 23-of-32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. Against the South Dakota Coyotes, Wilson’s name began to be mentioned as a Heisman contender as he threw for over 300 yards (345) and three touchdowns for the second time in as many weeks in the 59-10 blowout.

Wisconsin and Wilson face their toughest and most anticipated matchup Saturday as they host Big Ten newcomer, Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium.

I wanted an opinion on Wilson from someone familiar with him from his time at NC State, and turned to former UNC football player, Michael Felder of Felder has written and spoke about Wilson on his website and podcast several times. I asked Felder if he thought Wilson would have had a similar season if he chose to stay at NC State and he responded,

“He’s going to have more success at Wisconsin because of their offensive line, because of their commitment to running the football, and because they don’t have many holes and they’re a better football team overall. There’s a reason they went to the Rose Bowl last year. And you add Russell Wilson to that mix and as far as provide a little more success on an individual level, Russell Wilson is still just playing the same kind of football he played for three years at NC State, I don’t think that’s very different.” Felder later added, “He does that extra that thing you weren’t getting before [with Scott Tolzien], which is why with Wisconsin I think the sky’s ultimately the limit. We’ll see what happens on Saturday when they play Nebraska because I think that will be their first real test. The way Russell Wilson is playing, this could either go really really good, or it’s going to be a shock to the system, when they play a real football team.”

As far as Russell Wilson’s style of play and an overall assessment, I turned to NFL Scout, Jayson Braddock for his thoughts and he offered this:

“I remember watching Mike Vick at Virginia Tech and even at Atlanta and thinking how dynamic he could be if he would trust the pocket and use agility as a backup option.  We all saw Vick do that last year and become one of the most unstoppable forces in the NFL.  Well, millions of kids from across the country saw Vick and thought the same thing growing up.  We are now seeing the prototype of the new dual threat quarterbacks.  Russell Wilson is the poster boy for this new prototype.

While Wilson was exciting to watch at NC State, it’s clear that he’s taken another step, in not only ability but maturity in his first and final season at Wisconsin.  Russell has this confidence and poise in the pocket that wasn’t seen before.  Would he would drop back at NC State he would do a little bunny hop, bouncing action.  This was a sign of being uncomfortable and ready to take off if his routes didn’t open up quick.  Now he casually drops back with no bounce, goes through his progressions and makes the right read.  He prefers the pocket and has the arm strength and accuracy to dissect defenses that allow the smallest of windows.

Wisconsin does a great job of giving Wilson max protection but even if there is a crack in the wall up front, when he scrambles he has his eyes down field looking for the open man.  This can be one of the deadliest attributes to his game.  He has more than enough arm strength to place the ball down field while on the run.  Teams are recognizing that he’s a killer in the pocket and have to honor that, so this makes his mobility a bigger threat.  When he does take off, planned or freelanced, teams have no way of being prepared.  He doesn’t run enough for defenses to spy him and there isn’t a player around that can go stride for stride of the cuff when he takes off.  He has road runner legs, meaning he’s a quick strider that makes it difficult for defenders to dive and take out below the knees and it also allows quick change of direction.  When you factor in his explosiveness, ability to go from 0 to 60 in 3 yards, then you can see what all the fuss is about.  Don’t try to understand the new prototype…just enjoy it.”

The phrase “All Russell Wilson Everything” was coined by Michael Felder this summer and I’ve used it several times myself in my posts. As much as I have been fascinated by Wilson on the football field, today I am equally as fascinated by the young man off of it. His poise through difficult decisions and personal loss, along with his determination and drive has given me a new appreciation of “All Russell Wilson Everything”.

Dory LeBlanc, covers Gator sports for Gators First and Not just a college sports enthusiast, Dory is also a fan of NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB. Born outside Philly, she moved to Tampa, and now resides in Illinois, giving her a broad perspective on the sporting world. You can follow Dory on twitter @DoryLeBlanc