Commentary

QB Russell Wilson jelling with Badgers

Originally Published: August 23, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- It didn't take former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson very long to win over his new teammates at Wisconsin.

Wilson, who spent the past three seasons as the Wolfpack's starting quarterback, addressed his new teammates during one of his first days on the Wisconsin campus.

Russell Wilson
Brian Mason/Wisconsin Athletic CommunicationsRussell Wilson endeared himself quickly with his new teammates.

In a team meeting before a voluntary summer workout in July, Wilson told the Badgers why he walked away from the Colorado Rockies' minor league system and transferred to Wisconsin to play one more season of college football.

"He introduced himself and told us where he was from," Badgers receiver Nick Toon said. "He told us why he was here, to work hard and compete. That's one of the main reasons why we brought him in, because of his personality and the kind of guy he is."

Badgers coach Bret Bielema said he knew all he needed to know about Wilson as a quarterback. In three seasons at NC State, Wilson passed for 8,545 yards, which ranks third in school history, and accounted for 93 passing and rushing touchdowns, second best in ACC history.

But Bielema wanted to know more about Wilson as a person. More than anything else, Bielema wanted to know why Wilson left the Wolfpack.

"I already knew Russell was a good football player," Bielema said. "I'd seen him on TV. I wanted to find out what kind of person Russell is. Any time you see a three-year starter leave a program as a senior, you have some questions."

Wilson didn't leave NC State of his own accord. Wilson, 22, had hoped to return to NC State this fall and compete for the starting job, but coach Tom O'Brien released him from his scholarship.

O'Brien gave the starting job to Mike Glennon after Wilson skipped spring football practice to play baseball for the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists, a Class A team in the Rockies' minor league system.

Wilson was a fourth-round choice of the Rockies in the 2010 amateur baseball draft. Wilson, a second baseman, hit .228 with three homers and 15 RBIs in 61 games for the Tourists this season.

After struggling in his first full season in the minors, Wilson began to explore returning to college football. Under NCAA rules, Wilson is eligible to play immediately because he had already earned an undergraduate degree at NC State.

He meshed really well with the guys. He came in, and everybody really liked him.

-- Wisconsin WR Nick Toon

Wilson visited Auburn, the defending BCS national champion, and Wisconsin on the Tourists' off-days in June.

Bielema said he recruited Wilson just like a high school prospect. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Paul Chryst visited Collegiate High School in Richmond, Va., where Wilson led his team to a state championship as a junior and was named all-state in his final two seasons.

When Wilson visited Wisconsin, he went to dinner with the Badgers' offensive skill players. Bielema also set up a meeting between Wilson and Wisconsin's mammoth offensive linemen.

"That was more for the 'wow' factor," Bielema said. "He'd never been around guys like that."

Bielema wanted to make sure he wouldn't disrupt his team's chemistry by bringing in a one-year quarterback.

Other FBS teams have tried rental quarterbacks in the past and had mixed results. Ole Miss went 4-8 in 2010 after former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli joined the team last summer. Nebraska went 5-7 in 2007 with Arizona State transfer Sam Keller as its starting quarterback.

In the end, Bielema let his players decide whether Wilson would be welcomed to their team.

"It was paramount," Bielema said. "I knew if they felt good about him as a person, we were in good shape."

Wisconsin's players said Wilson won them over with his humility and work ethic.

"It was straight to the point," safety Aaron Henry said. "He didn't beat around the bush and was really blunt. A lot of guys come in and try to tell you their track record at another school. He just said he came to Wisconsin to work hard, and that really made an impression on everyone."

Wilson also impressed his new teammates by joining the Badgers' other rookies in singing the school's fight song and being ceremoniously dumped in an ice water bath in preseason camp.

"He meshed really well with the guys," Toon said. "He came in, and everybody really liked him. We had great chemistry last year, and we're trying to get that to carry over."

Wilson said he wanted his new teammates to know that he wasn't a prima donna despite his success at NC State.

"I wanted them to know that I'm here for the same reasons they are," Wilson said. "I'm the type of quarterback that's going to put in the extra work. We've got a great situation here, and I'm excited about it."

Bielema didn't promise Wilson the starting job before he enrolled, even though the Badgers were unsettled at quarterback after losing Scott Tolzien, who guided Wisconsin to an 11-2 record and a share of the Big Ten championship in 2010.

Tolzien, who won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the country's top senior quarterback last season, passed for 2,459 yards with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2010.

With Tolzien at quarterback, the Badgers were a ground-oriented offense, finishing 12th among FBS teams with 245.7 rushing yards per game in 2010. In fact, Wilson attempted nearly twice as many passes (527) at NC State this past season as Tolzien (266) did for Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayWilson accounted for 93 touchdowns at NC State, second best in ACC history.

"They're two different kinds of players," Toon said. "Scottie was a good athlete and wasn't going to make mistakes. He was going to do whatever it took to win. Russell is obviously a tremendous athlete and is going to make a lot of big plays."

Bielema named Wilson the starter for the Badgers' Sept. 1 opener against UNLV at Camp Randall Stadium. But that decision seemed like a foregone conclusion after sophomore Jon Budmayr injured his right elbow in preseason camp. Budmayr hasn't thrown a pass since Aug. 9 and was sent to a nerve specialist earlier this month.

Curt Phillips, another returning quarterback, reinjured his right knee in spring practice and will miss the entire season. Wilson is battling two freshmen -- Joe Brennan and Joel Stave -- for the starting job.

Wilson has picked up Wisconsin's offense well and has been impressive in preseason camp. With five returning starters on offense and five on defense, the No. 11 Badgers are perhaps favorites to win the Big Ten's Leaders Division this coming season, especially after adding Wilson during the summer.

"I really liked the experience they have with the guys that are coming back," Wilson, who was named co-captain by his teammates Monday, said. "It's a program with great tradition. I just felt like it was a great situation for me. I think it gives me a chance to go to the NFL with their style of play."

Depending how this season goes, Wilson might have another career decision to make in the spring. He is considered a potential high draft choice in the 2012 NFL draft but hasn't entirely given up on pursuing a baseball career.

"I've always loved football," Wilson said. "I think I have a future in football. I think I have a future in baseball. But I think I'll have a chance in the NFL with my intelligence and arm strength."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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