As he surveyed the talent around him during the first practices at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. on Monday, J.J. Wilcox almost didn’t feel like it was all real.
A safety from Division I-AA’s Georgia Southern, Wilcox recognized his new teammates on the South team and opponents from the North team from TV – not from playing against them. He almost couldn’t believe he was on the same field with them.
But Wilcox quickly pushed such thoughts out of his head, and focused on the opportunity he had received.
“I’m soaking up every second. Just to be around these guys that you see on TV every week – coming from a small school, you don’t be on TV every day,” Wilcox says. “But here, you’ve got [Oregon running back] Kenjon Barner, [Georgia cornerback] Shawn Williams, [USC safety] T.J. McDonald – guys that you see on TV. To be here, it’s a blessing, man. This is my chance to show the scouts that I can play with these guys as well. This is a big showcase.”
Despite his lack of big-school pedigree, Wilcox was selected by the Senior Bowl committee as one of the top senior draft prospects in the country. Over the next several days of practices – during individual drills, seven-on-seven work, scrimmages and Saturday’s game – he will try to prove to coaches that he has a bright future in the NFL.
During interviews with scouts and team officials from at least half the teams in the league, Wilcox will try to say all the right things and explain his rapid rise, and that his limited experience at safety is reason for optimism rather than cause for concern.
The 6-foot, 215-pound Wilcox has played only one season of safety in college. During his first three seasons at Georgia Southern, he spent time at running back and slot receiver. His only defensive experience came in high school when he started at outside linebacker for one season.
As a senior, Wilcox moved to safety, where he ranked second on the team with 88 tackles and had two interceptions. He also returned kickoffs, averaging 25.2 yards per runback.
Wilcox believes that he finally has found his calling at safety and that continuity at that position will enable him to flourish. He sees his past as motivation rather than an excuse or limitation.
“Having played offense is a plus,” he says. “Route-running, route stemming and ball skills, playing receiver and running back, you have to have great ball skills. Playing running back and receiver, you have to have that. And so, I know how to read defenses, I know how to read offenses. That definitely helps me.
“I would love to have [continuity],” Wilcox adds referring to be able to play safety permanently rather than continually changing positions. “It would make my game better. But at the same time, when you’re playing from behind like I am, it motivates you and challenges you more to work to show that you can play no matter what scheme you put up, no matter where you put me at, that gives me my drive.”
Wilcox takes the fact that he is under draft consideration – and projected by some as a mid-round pick – as confirmation that NFL scouts and officials believe the same thing about him.
Having grown up a fan of the late Sean Taylor, and aware that safety ranks among the Redskins’ top offseason needs, Wilcox said he hopes Redskins talent evaluators watch him closely this week.
“I definitely could go up there, play any position they need me to,” Wilcox says. “I’m versatile, I’m an accountable person, dependable, team player most of all. Whatever position they need me to play [I’ll play] it, and will make plays. Being this position after playing safety only one year shows all that. I’m glad [my coaches] moved me.
Wilcox acknowledges that he still has much to learn about playing safety, but he relishes the chance to do so.
“You can never know too much about the game. Every day I learn something new. I just want to learn how to be the best safety there is in the NFL,” he says. “I study all the safeties in the NFL. I was a big Sean Taylor fan, just always around the ball. Ed Reed. I love Ed Reed, just because he’s a ball hawk. Ryan Clark, I could go on. I love NFL, I sleep NFL. My TV stays on NFL Network. I can talk your ear off all day about NFL.”