- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- What you are about to hear is the answer that any NFL coach or front-office employee is going to get at next week’s scouting combine when they ask Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson about his height.
“The height issue is not a factor,’’ Wilson said. “There is no issue.’’
Wilson said those words from a golf cart Tuesday at IMG Madden Football Academy where he’s been prepping for the combine since January, except for a brief vacation to get married. There was no anger in Wilson’s voice as he responded to a question he knows he’ll hear frequently in Indianapolis. If anything, as he continued, his answer sounded more like a matter of fact.
“That’s the way I look at it, to be honest with you,’’ Wilson said. “I started over 50 games in college and did well. I played behind the fourth-biggest offensive line in the entire country and that’s including the NFL. I think that’s really important. The fact that those guys average 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, shows I can play behind them and be very efficient and effective.’’
The more you listen to Wilson state the facts, look at the facts for yourself and talk to those around him, the more you want to believe the NFL should be able to look beyond the fact he’s 5-foot-11. He’s won a lot of games at two different major colleges, completed better than 72 percent of his passes last season, has all sorts of physical skills and an intellect that jumps out at you as soon as he starts talking or the moment you start watching his film.
Still, the mocks and draft projections from just about every media outlet are saying Wilson probably will be a mid-round pick.
“If he was 6-5, he’d probably be the No. 1 pick in the draft,’’ said former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke, who now runs the football program at IMG and worked with No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton last year. “Listen, Russell’s a smart guy. He knows what the talking heads are saying. He doesn’t let it bother him. He really doesn’t. What I’ve seen from him is huge improvement just in small mechanical things.
“He’s been told his whole life that because he’s a little smaller, he’s got to stand up to throw the football. Well, what he’s learning now is he doesn’t have to do that. He can drive the football with his legs and still keep an erect torso. Back when I was a kid, the coaches always said you had to stand tall in the pocket. That’s not true or not correct because then you’re not driving the football with your legs.’’
Weinke’s point sounds very valid. He says the game has changed and believes NFL people realize it. Weinke said two quarterbacks that have changed the game reside right here in the NFC South.
“Luckily for these guys under 6-feet, Drew Brees has had success,’’ Weinke said. “The NFL is a copycat league and whoever has success, people are going to try to mirror that. Cam Newton had success as a big quarterback so that puts Robert Griffin III in a great position. Drew Brees has won a Super Bowl and has thrown for over 5,000 yards in a season. Guess what Russell Wilson? That’s good for you.’’
Wilson realizes Brees’ success could make NFL people willing to overlook age-old stereotypes about height. That’s why Wilson has kept a close eye on the New Orleans quarterback.
“I watch a lot of film on him,’’ Wilson said. “I’m trying to get to his level, obviously. He’s a great individual. I’ve read his book “Coming Back Stronger’’ several times and I look up to him for the way he handles his business on the field, but, more importantly, off the field. Chris and I have talked a lot about Drew and how Drew is a tremendous competitor and relentless. That’s the way I believe I am personally. We’ve also talked a lot about how Drew has great feet and how hard he’s worked at that and that’s one of the things I’m working on here.’’
It’s kind of ironic that back in 2001, Weinke and Brees worked out together in an earlier version of IMG’s combine training. Brees would end up going to San Diego in the second round and Weinke to Carolina in the fourth.
"Drew, not only was he a good athlete, he had great feet,'' Weinke said. "His feet have gotten even better over the years. He knew how to manipulate the discrepancies he had inside by moving his feet, finding holes to throw through and then throwing the ball over guys. I see Russell as that type of guy.’’
The physical comparisons are natural because Brees and Wilson are roughly the same size. But the argument that might convince NFL types that Wilson can be the second coming of Brees goes way beyond size. Chances are you know the basics on Brees -- great all-around athlete, intense competitor, mind like a computer and natural leadership skills.
The more you look at Wilson, the more you see signs he possesses those same traits. After a redshirt season at NC State, Wilson started in 2008 and was named to the All-ACC first-team. He followed that with two solid seasons while also starting a career as a minor-league baseball player in the Colorado Rockies’ system.
But Wilson and coach Tom O’Brien clashed about how the quarterback’s time was divided between baseball and football before his final year of eligibility. Wilson was released from his scholarship and was playing second base for Colorado’s Class A team in Asheville, N.C. last summer when he made a unique decision. Using an NCAA rule that allowed him to transfer and play football immediately as a graduate student, Wilson gave up baseball and headed for Wisconsin.
“People ask me 'would you ever go back to baseball?'’’ Wilson said. "People have to understand my focus is completely on football and has been since the moment I decided to go to Wisconsin. I took a huge, huge risk. I had to leave playing professional baseball and go to a new school and new situation with only a month to learn the entire playbook. I got there July 1 and my whole goal was to learn the entire playbook by July 21.''
This is where Wilson pauses a bit and sounds like he’s getting ready to confess something bad.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but I went into Camp Randall (Stadium) on my own late at night almost every night last summer and got on the 50-yard line and went through all the footwork of each play,’’ Wilson said. “I was basically installing the offense on my own each day and night for those three weeks. I might have broken curfew a few times. But that’s what I wanted, just to be by myself on the field, so I could have the image and the vision of 90,000 people being in front of me and just understanding what I’m doing.’’
The imagery worked. Wilson had a magnificent season. He passed for 3,175 yards with 33 touchdowns (second in Big 10 history to Brees’ 39 in 1998) and just four interceptions in a season in which Wisconsin won the inaugural Big 10 Championship Game.
“I have no regrets at all,’’ Wilson said. “I think it’s going to only help me in the NFL. I played in a West Coast offense at NC State and had to transfer to great new team in Wisconsin and learn a whole new system, a vertical, play-action-style offense. I think the fact I learned it so quickly is a great thing for NFL teams to notice. But, also, it was a great learning tool for me.’’
Wilson’s body of work is on four years’ worth of film. He’ll put his physical skills on display at the combine. He’ll show his intellect and competitive spirit in the meetings with team officials.
Maybe, just maybe, they’ll look at and listen to all of that and be convinced that Wilson is right. When you look at all he has to offer, height is not an issue.