Training camp has always served as a proving ground for young players. Unknown and undrafted players compete with veterans, top draft picks and other unproven hopefuls for a permanent spot in the locker room. For some players on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 90-man camp roster, there are only a few short weeks to earn a chance to play on Sundays in the NFL…especially in this most unusual of seasons.
Football in August is hard, it's hot, the locker room is crowded and the players go through many battles, any one of which could prove to be the deciding factor in their question. Battles on the field, battles for positions and battles with injuries and fatigue…for a young and unproven player, any given practice or preseason game could turn the tide, for better or worse.
So far in 2011, second-year defensive tackle, E.J. Wilson has been winning those battles. Though he has played in just two NFL games, Wilson seems poised to use this year's training camp as a springboard to bigger things. And now, with a big stage to perform on in Friday's preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the 23-year-old Wilson, who played collegiately at North Carolina and grew up in the small town of Lawrenceville Va., is ready to step up and make a big impact for his team.
"I just try to keep working on my craft," he said. "That's what I'm doing here still, that's how I get better and make plays."
His efforts in camp have caught the attention of his coaches and it certainly looks like he will get quite a bit of playing time in Friday's preseason opener. Buccaneers' defensive line coach, Keith Millard, explained that E.J.'s hip work is making a big difference with his explosiveness, one aspect of the game at which he is currently excelling.
"He is standing out because of his explosiveness," Millard said. "He has a quickness to him, and his ability to flip his hips has been great. He's playing low to the ground and he's intelligent, he knows what he's doing out there."
Wilson credits much of his success in camp to his offseason preparation with fellow Tar Heel alumni and current NFL comrades, Willie Parker (Redskins), Kentwan Balmer (Seahawks), Cam Thomas (Chargers) and Marvin Austin (New York Giants) in Chapel Hill. With the work stoppage erasing all the usual OTAs and mini-camps of the offseason, player-organized practices such as these proved invaluable to some young prospects.
"This spring I was back in Chapel Hill training," Wilson said. "Willie pretty much put us through two or three months of hell. All we did was plyo work, a bunch of running, change of direction stuff, and we did hips every day."
Wilson, who is only in his second season, has already had to deal with some disappointment in his pro career, as is not uncommon in the NFL. After a great senior season at North Carolina, he was selected in the fourth round (127th overall) of the 2010 NFL Draft by Seattle, but he wasn't able to play consistently enough to stay with the Seahawks. Despite making the active roster and appearing in two regular-season games for the Seahawks as a rookie, he was eventually cut during the season. The Buccaneers saw something in Wilson and were eager to sign him to the team's practice squad in November. Since that point Wilson says he's been putting everything he has into making the roster and sticking around with the Bucs.
If his coach's instincts are anywhere close to correct, Wilson could be heading for a successful NFL career. Millard likened him to Pro Football Hall of Fame DT John Randle, a former undrafted player and standout with the Minnesota Vikings.
"He's got a lot of that John Randle in him," Millard said. "He's very explosive, he's a smaller guy he plays with a violence, and he is just doing all the little things really well. He's working hard, coming before practice, working on his pass rush and certain things, staying after. He's a great kid and a great kid to coach."
The transition from the two-gap technique he learned in Seattle, where he lined up directly over the guard, to the three-technique with the Bucs, where he lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard, has allowed Wilson to focus on some specific things to increase his presence on the line and make him a more versatile player.
"When I was in Seattle we did a lot of two-gap," Wilson said. "So now I have to go back to what I was doing in college in taking my steps forward. Once I get my footwork and stuff nailed down and my pass rushing stuff down, I think I should have a pretty good preseason."
Head Coach Raheem Morris wasn't shy about Wilson's play either, and said he loved what he was seeing from him on the field and in the classroom. Morris praised his ability to be disruptive on the line of scrimmage and said he looks forward to seeing him in game situations.
"E.J. is not just having a good camp," Morris said. "He's having a really spectacular camp. He's getting off the ball, he's been explosive, he's being disruptive, he's really fitting nicely into that three-technique role and he's really stood out."
Both Morris and Millard also spoke enthusiastically about Wilson's explosiveness and his versatility in different packages.
"The thing about E.J. is that he has some position flexibility to be able to go to end, do some things there, so I'm excited in what he's been able to do since he's been at camp." Morris said. "We have been working him in with the first group when we're in the nickel, so he's doing a good job. We'll see how this week goes but he's been doing well." Millard added.
Despite moving across the country in 2010 and getting new coaches and a locker room full of new teammates in 2011, Wilson has stayed focused on his goals on the field and has been pushing himself to perform better every day.
"In the NFL you can't really get caught up with that stuff," he said. "You have to hear the message and not worry about who the messenger is or where you are. At the end of the day it's your job to go out there and execute no matter what."