- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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Like Rose, Wilson attended Chicago Simeon. Like his basketball counterpart, Wilson sees himself starting a professional sports career in his home town of Chicago.
“If I could, that would be great to play for a team I grew up rooting for,” Wilson said. “But no matter who drafts me, I’ll be happy.”
A standout linebacker at Illinois and one of the country’s most highly-coveted recruits coming out of high school, Wilson spent Saturday at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium explaining to reporters what he’s probably telling coaches, scouts and general managers around the league when addressing concerns about his character, injury history and mostly-underachieving career in college.
Wilson missed most of the 2009 season after undergoing neck surgery, but returned last season to lead the Illini in tackles, in addition to posting four sacks and an interception to go with 11.5 tackles for lost yardage. It was the type of season Illinois expected from Wilson when he arrived on campus in 2007, but he never seemed to deliver.
“It was very much-needed,” said Wilson, a junior who gave up his final year of eligibility. “Just having that moment [after] coming off neck surgery; most people wouldn’t want to play football again after an injury of that nature. It was important to come out like that. To have a great season like I did was wonderful. I loved every minute of it. It was precious.”
What probably isn’t as cherished an experience, though, is all the poking, prodding and interviewing with Wilson going on behind closed doors here at the combine.
In addition to having to answer questions about injury concerns, Wilson will have to address questions about character. Wilson was stabbed prior to the 2009 season while reportedly helping a former teammate during a fight outside a bar.
Wilson’s underachieving college career will also become a topic of conversation. He posted 112 tackles in 2010 to go with four sacks, after generating a combined 102 tackles and five sacks over his first two seasons.
“I was told for the past two months that it’s a job interview, so give as much information as they need and want, and be up front and honest with them,” Wilson said. “So that’s what I’ve been doing so far.”
He’s also showcasing his confidence in meetings with teams.
Scouts like Wilson’s upside and quickness, but question his instincts. They also express concerns about why Wilson never lived up to all the hype coming out of high school.
Wilson, meanwhile, says he has “the potential to be one of the best ever.”
“I’m very confident in my game, and as you can see, I don’t show [any] shyness” Wilson said. “I want [scouts and coaches] to know this kid really loves the game and plays with passion. If I do everything well that I need to do here and continue to improve even after the combine and impress scouts, impress coaches and general managers, I think my chances are very high. I’m confident in myself and I’ll be working very hard. The sky is the limit.”
Wilson is considered a potential first-round talent by some, and a raw third- or fourth-round prospect by others. Illinois sports a talent-rich tradition of linebackers that went on to stellar NFL careers, and Wilson wants to become the latest addition to the group.
When a reporter mentioned former Illinois greats Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, Wilson countered quickly.
“And Dana Howard, Simeon Rice, the list goes on,” Wilson said. “The coach said if you want to be one of those great guys, you have to do what’s needed to be great. You have to do what people aren’t doing. You’ve got to watch more film, exercise more, stretch more, things like that. I take [note of] everything and I do those things.”