Buccaneers fans – and management – are hoping to avoid last season's rash of defensive line injuries that was part of Tampa Bay's downfall and hope some quality depth can be found during the preseason. Former Tar Heel E.J. Wilson is hoping to do enough Wednesday night to be part of the defensive line rotation and provide depth at a thin position.
EJ Wilson has been waiting for this opportunity.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft by Seattle, Wilson signed a four-year contract with the Seahawks, but was cut later that season after posting one tackle in two games. After the 2011 lockout ended, Wilson signed with Tampa Bay before training camp but was injured in the second preseason game and placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season.
A three year starter at North Carolina under Butch Davis (now special advisor to Greg Schiano), Wilson was an anchor of a defense that featured Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter, Robert Quinn, and Marvin Austin, just to name a few current NFL players that shared a Tar Heel locker room with Wilson. His unique combination of speed, athleticism, and ferociousness placed Wilson all over the defensive depth chart – from linebacker to nose tackle.
Wilson ended his collegiate career with 131 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, and six forced fumbles. Entering the draft, most analysts viewed Wilson as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense due to his 6-3, 289 pound size, but the Seahawks and Bucs, both 4-3 teams saw things differently and kept Wilson as a lineman.
Wilson reflected upon his size and playing on the D-Line after Friday night’s 30-28 victory over the Patriots.
“I think it can be attributed to my strength.” Wilson said. “Right now, I’m probably – I joke around with guys and say I’m probably the lightest D-tackle in the league. It’s all about leverage; it doesn’t matter what size you are as long as you got the strength to get your pads down and you’ll strike someone, you can play any position on the field.”
Through an outstanding 2012 training camp, Wilson has done just that with several positions on the defensive line, taking reps at both end and tackle positions with the second and third teams. Prior to rupturing his Achilles tendon, Wilson was showing signs of an impact player last season as well.
“Well, first of all, I have to give honor to God because He’s allowed me to bounce back from injury.” Wilson said. “This time last year, I wasn’t even able to walk. So I’m just going out there, trying to stay humble, trying to do what the coaches ask me to do, trying to fly around and make plays and use my athleticism to my advantage.”
That athleticism is one of the things that jumps out about Wilson when he plays. Clocked at a sub-five second 40-time, Wilson has a very quick jump off the snap and has a non-stop motor. Wilson is constantly using a second effort after the initial block to get into the offensive backfield.
“It’s something I have in me,” Wilson said of his quick reaction time, “but I really have to make an emphasis because the coaches have kind of been on me about getting my vertical step and getting vertical. I realize, I know, once I get vertical I can make things happen. It’s something once I just adjusted my stance it’s something that just comes natural. I know especially being a smaller tackle guy playing inside that I got to get off the ball and I got to get those guys before they get moving.”
Using his abilities to improve his technique is very important, not only to Wilson, but to the Bucs. With Amobi Okoye’s lingering knee issue and Gerald McCoy’s history of injuries, the three-tech defensive tackle has to be a position of concern for Tampa Bay coaching staff. The fact that he will be called on to step up at least against Washington is not lost on Wilson, with McCoy out of the game.
“Right now, I’m next in line, Wilson said. "I just hope those guys get healthy because we need all the numbers we can get. Going back to last year, our guys just kept dropping and dropping. I guess I’m just thankful for the opportunity to get some experience in there playing tackle so whenever those guys do come back, that I’ll be ready to play.”
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