During a special teams drill in the middle of the joint practice between Tampa Bay and Tennessee on Wednesday, the Buccaneers had their punting unit on the field against the Titans' return team. Split wide to the right as one of the two "gunners" who are allowed to head downfield as soon as the ball is snapped was Buccaneers rookie running back Shaun Wilson.
The Titans had just one blocker on Wilson, and at the snap the Buccaneer back made a lightning-quick move to the inside and was able to get around his man immediately. He quickly got up to full speed and didn't slow down until he was almost on the Titans' return man.
That's the way things have felt for Wilson in his first NFL training camp as a whole. He joined the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Duke and, not long into camp, drew some words of praise from his head coach, Dirk Koetter. Wilson quickly became a regular in the punt and kickoff return rotations, and he was likely to see a great deal of second-half action when the Buccaneers opened their preseason in Miami last week.
Unfortunately, a minor and unspecified injury knocked the rookie out of action leading up to that opener against the Dolphins and he wasn't able to suit up for that game or a series of practices. Despite that bit of misfortune, Wilson never felt as if he had lost any traction in his battle to make the Buccaneers' roster.
View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice with the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, Tennessee.
"I never lost any of my momentum," he said after practice on Wednesday. "I'm right back where I was before I had a minor setback. I'm still in the same place, same mindset and I'm ready to come out here and work every day."
That "minor setback" did delay his NFL debut under the lights, though. Now he's preparing for Saturday's game against the Titans and hoping he'll get his chance to show what he can do. On a day to day basis, that simply means approaching every practice the same way he had before his injury. And when he is given a chance to do something new, like race down the field as a punt gunner, he makes the most of it.
"I'm just taking it day-by-day," said Wilson. "Of course I would have liked to have played in the game in Miami, but I'm just waiting my turn. Things happen and it's all about how you respond. So I'm just preparing for the game coming up."
Wilson is trying to crack a Tampa Bay backfield that has a pretty apparent one-two punch at the front in Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones. That group also includes do-it-all veteran Jacquizz Rodgers and talented pass-catcher and long-time Buc Charles Sims. Wilson would need to either dislodge one of those veterans in front of him or convince the Bucs it is worth keeping five running backs. By far the best way of him doing the latter is to become invaluable in the kick-and-return game.
"Special teams is definitely the key to the roster," said Wilson. "Coming into the league, a lot of the older guys that I knew in the league told me that special teams is key and that gives you a higher chance of making the 53-man roster. So I'll do whatever it is I need to do on special teams."
If Wilson can grab one or both of the return jobs, he'll have a chance to show he can make the sort of big plays in the kicking game he did at Duke, where he logged returns of 98, 96 and 76 yards, the first two for touchdowns. In turn, if he can use special teams to stick in the NFL, he could eventually parlay that into some playing time on offense. Wilson turned in a series of long touchdown runs on offense at Duke, too, but it was likely his 5-9, 185-pound stature that kept him from being drafted despite those highlights. That's irrelevant now; Wilson is an NFL camp fighting for a spot, and he's confident he can make the same sort of big plays at the professional level.
"I mean, I'm out here for a reason, so I know I can make plays," he said. "If I don't believe it, who else is going to believe it?"