April 25, 2017
By Bill Koch
CINCINNATI – Shortly after he arrived at Northwestern University to begin his college football career in 2012, Eric Wilson knew he had made a mistake. For all its academic attributes and its pedigree as a member of the Big Ten Conference, it just didn’t feel right.
“Where I come from it’s just blue collar and there it’s all white collar,” Wilson said Tuesday. “Everybody is from that type of background and everybody there is like basically, they’re the valedictorian in their school and I came in there with a 22 on the ACT and they kind of looked at me like how is this guy here?
“It was just a weird vibe. Right away, I knew it was just not for me. And I ended up getting into a moped accident on the way to practice. The guy ran a red light. So it was a lot of things telling me that it’s not the place for me.”
Five years later, Wilson is still a blue-collar guy, a first-team all-American Athletic Conference middle linebacker last fall at the University of Cincinnati who understands he’s in that gray area between being a late-round pick in this week’s NFL draft and not getting drafted at all.
But he’s confident of one thing as he anxiously waits for the draft to unfold: Even if he doesn’t get drafted, he’ll likely be in the camp of an NFL team next week, even it means having to go the hard way as a free agent.
“I’m not nervous,” Wilson said. “I feel like I’m just anxious for it to happen. I’m excited, but at the same time, you just don’t know where exactly you’re going to go. Regardless of where I go, I’m going to work my tail off to make that 53-man roster and make an impact on that team.”
Wilson’s path to what he hopes will be an NFL career began in Redford, Mich., just a few miles outside the Detroit city limits. He was an all-state wide receiver as a senior at Thurston High School in addition to playing linebacker and safety. He preferred to play defense in college, he said, because he felt he could make a bigger impact there.
After his one year at Northwestern, where he redshirted as a true freshman, Wilson ended up at UC thanks to a previous relationship with Steve Clinkscale, who was then the Bearcats’ co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.
“Coach Clink recruited me when he was at Toledo and then he came here,” Wilson said. “I was going through the transfer process and he already knew the potential that I could have as a player. I came here and took a visit and I loved the campus and the people. The coaches were really positive on what I could do in developing me as a player, just the guys that I saw here on the team made me want to come here. I’ve always thought Cincinnati ball is really good.”
After sitting out the mandatory year under the NCAA’s rules for transfers, Wilson made his mark mostly on special teams. As a junior, he was a second-team all-conference selection. Last year, he led the league in tackles with 129. Through it all, his biggest asset has been his speed. He has been clocked as fast as 4.48 seconds in the 40.
“I’ve always been fast,” Wilson said. “In the fourth grade that’s kind of how I became a popular kid. I was the fastest kid on the playground. I always used my speed in everything that I do and I think that’s the way the league is moving now, having faster linebackers to be able to play in space because it’s developing into more of a passing league. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t stop the run. I think I use my speed to move from sideline to sideline to make plays
“I know that’s my strength, so sometimes I rely on that when I’m going against offensive linemen. So I think that I need to improve on using my hands and being more physical at the point of attack with linemen and really just having my focus on them because I would be looking in the backfield and not putting my full effort on that.”
Despite his production during his senior year, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Wilson was not invited to the NFL combine in February. The snub only motivated him to work harder. He worked out at the Ignition training center in Mason to improve his agility and his ability to flourish in the kind of drills he would be asked to do at his UC pro day.
“A guy like me,” Wilson said, “I wasn’t a big-name guy, so I’m kind of under the radar. But I think God blessed me throughout my life and at my pro day. I put up a lot of great numbers, so I think that boosted a lot of teams’ interest and had them look at my film more.”
Since then, he estimates that he has been personally worked out by 10 NFL teams and has fielded phone calls from others, so he knows the interest is there. He has been projected as anywhere from a fifth-round selection in the seven-round draft to a free agent.
“It gives me more confidence and reassurance that all that work that I put in is paying off,” he said, “because these teams are actually calling me and calling my agent.”
Wilson is proud of the way he has matured since his ill-fated decision to attend Northwestern. He found the fresh start he needed at UC and made the most of it. And when things went sour for the Bearcats last fall during a 4-8 season, he continued to compete every day in practice and gave everything he had on game day. When reporters had questions, he was always there for them.
“Last year was obviously a disappointing year as far our overall success went, but I feel like we never got down on ourselves,” Wilson said. “We were always positive. It was just the little stuff that kept getting us. The seniors, we kept the younger guys accountable. We were trying to do the things off the field and watch film, but for whatever reason, we just weren’t winning games. But I did have a lot of individual success. I was just trying to really make a difference. I feel like I did the most I could. I have no regrets on how I approached the game, my preparation, how I performed or anything.”
As the draft approaches and the anxiety grows, Wilson - who graduated in December with a degree in sports administration - is comfortable in the knowledge that he has also done all he could to make himself a viable NFL prospect.
“There’s nothing I can do now,” he said. “I’m going to watch the whole draft because I played against guys who are going to get drafted. It’s cool to see where they go and what their value is. I’m going to be back home in Redford and watch it with my family because they’ve always supported me. They’re just as excited as me.”
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January 2015.