Missouri's Wilson makes presence felt at linebacker

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Throughout fall camp there were plenty of questions surrounding Missouri’s defense. Who would step in and fill the gap on the defensive line left by Sheldon Richardson? Which defensive back would take pressure off all-conference cornerback E.J. Gaines?

There weren’t a lot of questions about the middle.

Known for his big hits on opposing defenses, senior linebacker Andrew Wilson has solidified himself during his first three years as a playmaker. With some questions around him, Wilson seems more like the answer for Missouri’s defense.

“He’s a very very physical player,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s a very tough player, very dedicated.”

Wilson has asserted himself as one of Missouri’s most consistent defenders during his career. He’s led the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons including 98 in 2011. He has career 219 tackles, which is 50 more than the next closest player, Gaines.

“After the last couple of years, the longer you’re in, the more you mature, the more you know the position,” Pinkel said. “Linebacker is a very difficult position to play because you have so many things to do. Other than offensive line and quarterback, it’s the most difficult. Last couple years he’s really, really played well and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Wilson, who was voted one of the team’s four captains this year, made his presence felt in Missouri’s four-overtime victory against Tennessee last year by breaking up a pass in the end zone that would have won the game for Tennessee.

“He’s definitely been consistent since he got here,” Gaines said. “Like I said, the physical presence he brings to the football game is at a different level right now.”

Wilson’s shown that ability to fly to the ball his whole football career. He had 146 tackles his senior year for Raymore Peculiar. He credits his approach to never straying from fundamentals, saying, “If you just keep working on them, your game won’t stay the same, it will improve.”

Wilson’s play will be key for a defense some are unsure about. Although it played well at times, the Tigers allowed more than 28 points per game last season and ranked 10th in the conference and 58th nationally in total defense. Maybe not surprisingly, it was the first time Missouri was outscored by its opponents during the entire season since 2001, Pinkel’s first year at Missouri.

With questions surrounding other positions, the only question about Wilson may be whether or not he has to ratchet down his physical play a tad.

A new rule from the NCAA this year states hits against a defenseless player will result in a 15-yard penalty and an ejection.

Pinkel said he’s all for the new rules, but said it’s been tough for players to adjust. He said the team was concerned with a pair of hits they had in practice, and sent tape to the Southeastern Conference. One of the hits would have been ruled an ejection. He said he expects the rule to be enforced tightly this season.

“We’re spending a lot of time on it,” Pinkel said. “We’ve all got to live by the same rules. But again, it protects people and it’s the right thing to protect the game.”

Added Wilson: “They just emphasized staying low on hits and emphasizing not throwing your elbows. It’s going to be interesting when they first start calling them. We’ve just emphasized staying lower in camp.”

Wilson, who has won Missouri’s “Hammer Award” each of the last three seasons for being the team’s biggest hitter, said he will adjust like everyone else.

A healthy season for Wilson would put him in the top 20 at Missouri in career tackles. It would also be a big shot in the arm for the Missouri defense.

“We’re looking for that consistency and that leadership out there with the rest of the defensive players,” Pinkel said.

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