You Must Be This Tall to Be Successful: Russell Wilson

August 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

by Kevin Harrington

You’ve probably heard the expression “history often repeats itself.” In the world of sports, this can be true more often than not. Today I’m going to examine when this directly applies to the beginning of an unheralded athlete’s career. This isn’t the usual alignment of a college-to-pro career of some 5-star quarterback recruit turned #1 overall draft pick like Matthew Stafford. This is a bit more unique and full of challenges and rare obstacles. It’s about a future sports star who has never had the odds in his favor, but persevered anyway. If anyone is equipped to overcome adversity and come out on the winning end, it’s Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. This is because Russell Wilson has absolutely the strangest college backstory of any quarterback playing in the NFL today. 

Coming out of high school, Russell Wilson was an undersized 2-star quarterback recruit that barely registered a blip on any university’s radar. He was only offered scholarships from Duke and North Carolina State, the latter being his eventual college of choice. The Wolfpack was still searching for their next star quarterback after they lost Philip Rivers to the NFL, and no one was expecting the 5’11”, 180 pound Wilson to be their long-term solution. Wilson began his career by splitting time as a backup, but soon saw more action early after injuries and poor play by upperclassmen Daniel Evans and Harrison Beck. By Week 5, Wilson was the undisputed starter as only a redshirt freshman. He finished his debut season with 22 touchdowns (including four rushing TD’s), and incredibly only threw one interception all year. He became the first freshman quarterback ever to be honored to the first team All-ACC squad.

The drama began when highly acclaimed quarterback recruit Mike Glennon committed to N.C. State the following year. The pro-style Glennon (6’6”, 195 pounds) was rated the 3rd best quarterback in his class and considered to be the future at N.C. State. It seemed that the undersized Russell Wilson just had to keep the seat warm for him until Glennon was ready to take the reins. However, while Glennon redshirted his first year, Wilson broke the record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception (389) and finished the year with 35 total touchdowns. This only added to the difficult decision that the coaching staff was presented with.

As Mike Glennon lost another season of his eligibility by backing up Wilson, the incumbent had a career year by throwing for over 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns while running for a career high 435 yards and nine touchdowns. It was one of the most proficient seasons by a quarterback in school history…yet after the school year, questions began to swirl if their quarterback would even return to play his senior season. Normally, this would be a very fair question after a quarterback had a junior year performance like Wilson’s. He would simply leave school early to declare for the NFL Draft. If Wilson was three inches taller, this would most likely be the case for him as well. However, due to his small stature, he needed to play his senior year to prove his detractors wrong that he can become a more accurate passer (career 57.4% completion rate at the time) and succeed at the most prominent position in the NFL.

The questions regarding Wilson’s return began when the quarterback was drafted in 2010 by the MLB’s Colorado Rockies. Seeing an opportunity to finally name top prospect Mike Glennon the starter, coach Tom O’Brien released Wilson (then practicing with the Rockies’ minor league affiliate rather than reporting to spring training at N.C. State) from scholarship due to his “apparent lack of commitment to the program.” Because Wilson had already
graduated from N.C. State with a year of eligibility left, he was free to transfer to any school without sitting out a year. Wilson settled on Wisconsin, the favorites to win the Big 10 in 2011. One reason why this worked out so well for the undersized quarterback was that the team ran an offense much more similar to NFL offenses than N.C. State did. The quarterback was under center frequently with the team employing a two-running back formation more often than the popular college-style spread offense. It also didn’t hurt that Wilson proved he could be extremely accurate by throwing for over 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns compared to only 4 interceptions. He also improved from a career 57.4% passer at N.C. State to setting the NCAA record for passing efficiency (191.8) by completing 72.8% of his passes at Wisconsin. This, combined with a career-high 10-win Rose Bowl season, all led to him being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks.

This was an interesting pick by the Seahawks, as they already had 2011 starting quarterback Tavaris Jackson and the incoming, seemingly 2012 starter in Matt Flynn on their roster. They won the rights of the coveted Aaron Rodgers backup when they gave him a three year contract worth $19.5 million ($10 million guaranteed). And there was still that whole “vertically challenged” thing. So now Russell Wilson finds himself in a similar situation that he faced in college. He is on yet another team which management has reasons to push for another quarterback to start. To be more specific, reasons unrelated to talent level. Normally, when a team commits millions of dollars to a quarterback, that quarterback has the automatic “in” for the starting position, even if they are outplayed by younger, less experienced players in training camp and preseason. When a team makes a large investment, especially in a position as polarizing as quarterback, sometimes the management specifically wants to see that player succeed rather than give every player a fair chance.

Luckily for Wilson, Seattle is going through a renovation of sorts, and they are not the conventional organization. Pete Carroll, of USC lore, is not your conventional head coach. After going the unconventional route by using a top 75 pick on a quarterback the same offseason the team signed a presumed starting quarterback, Seattle continued their unconventional style by actually giving every quarterback on their roster a fighting chance. It was first assumed this was just a formality before naming Flynn the starter until the battle became slightly murkier when Wilson clearly played his way into the picture during training camp. When Carroll made it clear that it had become a

Wilson hopes to wrestle the starting quarterback job from Matt Flynn over the last two weeks of the preseason.

two-man race, the team benched 2011 starter Tavaris Jackson and made him available to teams seeking a backup quarterback. Then Wilson started dominating defenses in the preseason.

In his two preseason performances, Wilson has completed 22 of 33 passes for 279 yards with three touchdowns to one interception. He also has tacked on an impressive 92 rushing yards (10thin the league) including a designed 32-yard bootleg for a touchdown against the Titans. Wilson has distinguished himself through his impressive escapability by avoiding pressure in the pocket and breaking off some nice runs while under duress. His progress will finally be rewarded Friday. After Pete Carroll and co. witnessed Wilson shred backup defenses (albeit with reserve offensive weapons) in the second half of his two wins, the coach anointed the sub-six-footer the starter for Friday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Although this is far from telling the tale of who will be starting opening day on September 9th against the Cardinals, this will be crucial in the decision-making process. What Russell Wilson can do with Seattle’s starting unit against the likes of Eric Berry, Tamba Hali, and Derrick Johnson on Friday will paint a much clearer picture of how he can handle the pressure of an NFL starting quarterback. Rumor has it that it may have become Wilson’s job to lose, but that’s never been an option for the quarterback who seems to never get the respect he deserves.

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