Ex-Illinois coach lauds Wilson's versatility

FOXBOROUGH, Mass -- The New England Patriots raised some eyebrows amongst draft experts and fans by selecting Illinois safety Tavon Wilson in the second round of the draft (48th overall), but not everyone was surprised by the team’s decision.

“Not at all,” said Ron Zook, the former Illinois head coach who called on Wilson to start 39 of his 50 career games from 2008 to 2011.

“I’ve been with him for four years -- he’s played corner, he’s played safety, and to me what happened is Coach Belichick and his staff, they just did their homework. They went out there and they found not only a great person, but a guy that’s going to come in and (play) for an awful long time in the National Football League.”

Zook, who worked with ESPN’s Jon Gruden and CBS Sports leading into the draft, believes that Wilson was the third-best available safety, behind only Alabama’s Mark Barron and Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith, who were first-round selections.

Zook said Wilson’s versatility and ability to play cornerback or safety was due in part to his commitment to winning and doing what was best for the team.

“I think one of the things that helped him is playing both positions. Personally I think he’s probably more of a safety,” Zook said.

“...I think he’s a guy that can play there in the slot. I think everybody is always looking for a safety that can play man, and play in these multiple formations and so forth, can play man-to-man on that inside receiver guy, and he’s a guy that can do that.”

The Patriots’ struggles in the secondary in 2011 are well-chronicled, and the team has worked to address the issue throughout the offseason with the free-agent additions of veterans Steve Gregory (safety) and Will Allen (cornerback), along with the selections of Wilson and former Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (seventh round).

But Zook doesn’t believe Wilson’s impact will be limited to just defense, as he lauded the 22-year-old’s ability to compete on special teams.

“He’ll be on all the special teams," said Zook. "He’s one of those guys that will want to be on them, and you know one position that a lot of people don’t understand -- you have to learn how to play special teams,” he said. “A lot of times guys don’t play them until they get to the NFL. Well, Tavon is experienced in all phases, with the exception of extra point/field goal protection. He’s been on all the other phases. He was on the hands team, he was on kickoff return, kickoff, and he knows how to play special teams. And believe me, there’s a lot more to it than what people think. He’ll give you everything he’s got.”

Naturally, Zook has no problem finding plenty to like about Wilson’s game, including a work ethic, toughness and tackling ability comparable to former Illinois standout Vontae Davis, the starting cornerback for the Miami Dolphins. He also acknowledges Wilson’s affinity for contact, noting, “He’s not a guy that’s ever hurt.”

Zook is aware that some might be doubting the Patriots’ selection of Wilson, but not him.

“I think one thing that people are going to see is that he’s a heck of a lot better player than what they might think,” he said. “Because they didn’t know a lot about him, there’s going to be a lot of question marks, but I promise you, he’s going to come in there and he’ll show people that he’s deserving of the position he was drafted.”