On and off the field, Virginia Tech's Wilson is one to watch

By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010

BLACKSBURG, VA. - When most Virginia Tech students walk past the pillars that surround Cassell Coliseum, the school's basketball arena, they think about rooting for the Hokies at games or maybe even the resurgence of Coach Seth Greenberg and his men's basketball program.

But when Virginia Tech running back David Wilson ambled past those arched columns with teammate J.R. Collins one summer night in 2009, he thought of a jungle gym. So Wilson dropped his books and iPod and began scaling the building to see what it would look like on top.

"Halfway up, I was like, 'I gotta come down,' " Wilson recalled this week between laughs. "But I just kept going and when I got to the top I was just looking at the view. You can see the whole campus and the mountains and everything. I told [Collins] to pull out his phone to record it because nobody would believe I climbed up here."

His adventure that night only confirms what coaches and teammates say about him now. Wilson, a sophomore, runs the 40-yard dash in 4.29 seconds, holds the school's running backs record with a power clean of 341 pounds and leapt more than 50 feet in the triple jump for Virginia Tech's track and field team this past spring. Teammate Eddie Whitley dubbed him a "freak athlete."

He also happens to lead the Hokies football team in explosive moments heading into Saturday's game against Duke, with 14 plays in which he's gained 20 or more yards and a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown this season. At times, though, his boundless energy and ever-present smile make some wonder if he's a fifth-grader stuck inside a 19-year-old's body.

After games, while the rest of his team is singing the school's alma mater, Wilson is standing in front of the band pretending to conduct. At practice, he often swings from the crossbar to distract Virginia Tech's place kickers, does back flips during his down time and "rewinds" his own steps after a big run. And as Wilson tells it, he once caught a rabbit by its ears with his bare hands on the practice field.

Running backs coach Billy Hite said there are moments when Wilson's antics can become a distraction, but even he concedes: "Whatever he's taking, I want some of it, too. He's always smiling and he just loves to have fun."

"You look at him and wonder where in the world is he getting all his energy from," said tight end Andre Smith. "At times you kind of look at him like a little kid with too much energy. Even in games, he's one of the first people I've ever seen that didn't have such a serious look that actually went out there and still played and took care of business."

Wilson admits he often thinks about how he got to be so effervescent, but the only conclusion he can make is that he's always been this way. Even when he was a youngster growing up in rural Danville, Va., he remembers being so restless in class that a teacher once called him "a wiggle worm in hot ashes."

Sports became his outlet, and by Wilson's senior year he was one of most coveted running backs in the country. Late in his recruiting process, after he had orally committed to Virginia Tech, Coach Urban Meyer and Florida came calling, promising Wilson that he could become the next Percy Harvin.

Wilson stuck with his original decision, but during his freshman season, when he saw limited action while running back Ryan Williams set an ACC freshman rushing record with 1,655 yards, he would frequently have second thoughts.

"There was times I wondered about if I went to Florida - like last year and stuff - but I just stick it out wherever I'm at," said Wilson. "No matter what college you go to, if you got the skills and the talent to go to the next level, you're gonna be found. There's plenty of guys who go through different stuff and end up in the NFL."

That thinking has served the 200-pound speedster well this season. Over the summer, Wilson considered taking a redshirt year in order to separate his eligibility from that of Williams and junior Darren Evans. He made so many plays during Virginia Tech's training camp, though, that coaches determined he was too valuable of a weapon.

But following the Hokies' 0-2 start this year, Wilson spoke out to reporters and expressed regret over not sitting out the season after getting just four carries through two games. The next week, Williams went down with a right hamstring injury and Wilson has taken advantage of the increased playing time.

He's averaging a team-high 6.8 yards per carry, and last week against Wake Forest he broke the 100-yard mark for the first time this year. Hite said Wilson has performed so well that he will continue to be an equal part of the tailback rotation, even though Williams is expected to make his return to the lineup against Duke.

Wilson said his recent performances also have given him a new outlook on Virginia Tech's crowded backfield situation, especially with the Hokies riding a five-game winning streak. If there's one thing Wilson is serious about, it's his desire to showcase his prodigious talents.

"I just decided in my head that regardless of when I get the ball or how many times I touch the ball, that I want people to know something big is gonna happen," Wilson said. "Each time I get the ball in my hands I want to give people out there to look forward to it. . . . So as long as I make big plays and do my part when I do get the ball, eventually the coaches will have no choice but to start feeding me the ball more."

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