- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Kyle Wilson doesn't doodle. His New York Jets spiral notebook, which he carries in his Boise State knapsack, is filled with copious notes -- organized and neat. You won't find any daydreamer's art in the margins, just X's-and-O's stuff:
Offensive formations. Route combinations. A plus/minus grade for every play in practice. And a memo to himself, an alert, for every defensive call.
"Hands and feet."
It's a serious notebook for a serious player. Wilson's position coach, Dennis Thurman, said it's one of the most detailed notebooks he's ever seen.
"He writes down everything," the Jets' secondary coach said. "He draws the formation, too, and most don't do it that way."
Said Wilson: "It helps me know where I need to be."
Lately, he's been in the right place at the right time. After a disappointing rookie season in which he dropped to the bottom of the depth chart, prompting whispers of the "B" word, the former first-round pick is enjoying a breakout year.
The Jets' pass defense is a nightmare for quarterbacks, and one of the reasons is Wilson's dramatic improvement. He has solidified the slot position, creating an impressive troika of cornerbacks -- Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Wilson.
"He's playing unbelievable for us and it's only going to get better," said Revis, who mentored Wilson in the offseason. "He wants it. He wants to be great and he's on the way to doing it."
Eric Mangini was the Browns' coach for the 2010 draft and his team almost chose Wilson with the seventh overall pick. Cleveland wound up picking another cornerback, Joe Haden, but Mangini was high on Wilson. Still is.
"Outstanding balance in his backpedal and the best distribution of weight I had seen in a long time -- and that really helps you break a lot quicker on balls," the former Jets coach said, reading from his old draft notes on Wilson.
Mangini, currently an ESPN studio analyst, said Wilson's body control compared favorably to that of Revis -- high praise, indeed. The Jets took him with the 29th pick, thinking they had scored one of the steals of the draft, but he got off to a slow start and lost confidence.
In college, Wilson was known for his animated, fist-pumping demeanor, trash-talking his opponents. That disappeared last season, and a cornerback without confidence is like a dancer without rhythm.
"Last year he would let the bad plays bother him," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said.
With Revis and Cromartie on the outside, Wilson was forced to learn the inside corner position, covering slot receivers. It's a different world inside, and it took him an entire season to adjust.
Inside, the cornerback must be prepared to defend a "three-way go," as coaches like to call it. Slot receivers have the ability to go one of three ways -- left, right or deep. You can't use the sideline as leverage, an advantage for cornerbacks on the outside.
"It took time, but now he's much more comfortable in the slot and his confidence is soaring," Thurman said.
Wilson played in every game last season, almost exclusively in sub packages, but he didn't give the organization much reason to believe he could step into a starting role in 2011. The Jets went hard after free agent Nnamdi Asomugha, and hard after Cromartie when Asomugha spurned their offer.
Teams usually don't spend big bucks when there's a former No. 1 pick waiting for his turn, so this was telling.
Long before the Jets started flirting with Asomugha, Wilson decided to do something about it, determined to restore his good name. He accepted Revis' invitation to work out with him at a training facility in Arizona, a six-week, body-and-mind experience with the best cornerback in the NFL.
They pushed each other on the track and in the weight room, and they broke down tape of wide receivers, with Revis teaching him his secrets of preparation -- everything from deciphering body language to perfecting the art of taking notes.
It was like receiving voice lessons from Pavarotti.
"I'm sure he had some doubts and maybe he felt uncomfortable about me bringing him out there," Revis said. "But he humbled himself and he responded to it. I thought it did wonders for him."
It was a pay-it-forward gesture by Revis, who shared the knowledge he gained from Ty Law, a childhood hero from Aliquippa, Pa. Law, in the twilight of a terrific career. Revis absorbed a lot from Law, 11 years his senior.
"Ty taught me to always learn this game and take notes," Revis said. "I put that in my game as I saw Ty doing it. I'm just doing the same thing, trying to pass it on to someone else."
Wilson was a diligent note-taker from the day he arrived. On one half of a page, he'll diagram a play. On the other half, he'll jot down as many as a dozen bullet points, picking the most important one -- his alert -- and writing it in bigger letters.
"I need to see it," he said.
But Wilson learned quickly that life on an NFL field is a lot messier than the margins in his notebook. His problem: He wasn't using his eyes correctly.
"We had to train his eyes, to a degree," Thurman said.
In the Jets' man-to-man system, the cornerbacks are taught to focus on the receiver's torso -- specifically, a target above the waist and below the neck. Whatever you do, don't peek at the quarterback.
Wilson was peeking.
"There's an old saying: If you see the quarterback throw it, you'll watch the receiver catch it," said Thurman, a former longtime defensive back in the NFL.
Seeing is believing. After eight games, Wilson has only one penalty (5 yards) and has yet to allow a long completion or a touchdown pass.
Wilson said he's "the same old guy" as last season, although he acknowledged that maturity and experience have enhanced his raw talent.
"I'd say the biggest thing is the mental part, just anticipation based on formations and tendencies," he said.
Wilson's impact on the secondary was apparent in last week's win over the Buffalo Bills, a spread offense that used at least three wide receivers on most plays. With Wilson no longer a liability, they were able to play their physical, bump-and-run style knowing they weren't exposed. Ryan Fitzpatrick completed only nine passes to his wideouts.
The Jets face a similar challenge this week against the New England Patriots, another team that likes to spread the field. With three legit corners, it won't be easy for Tom Brady to pick on a weak link.
"I don't think there's another team in the league that has as much depth as the Jets as far as the secondary," Patriots receiver Deion Branch said.
Wilson's hard work paid off two games ago, with a huge fourth-quarter interception against the San Diego Chargers. It was the first of his career, coming in his 23rd game. He's planning to display the ball on his mantel.
"Right now, it'll probably be the centerpiece," he said. "But they'll be some more coming, so it's going to have to move over."
Consider that a mental note to himself -- and an alert to opposing quarterbacks.