After breakout season, Wilson fighting for his job (cont.)
And he'll play differently than other athletic, shorter-than-preferable quarterbacks because for some reason, he throws the ball like a man six inches taller. During a five-man competition prior to last season, O'Brien marveled at how Wilson could fling a pass into a tight space with a whistling spiral. Harry, the older brother, has a few theories. "My dad was a wide receiver, and I was a wide receiver," said Harry, a 25-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep in Chicago. "We needed somebody to throw to us." So young Russell had plenty of practice. But there's another explanation for why he throws with so much more control than the fellow members of the sub-6-foot club. In 275 pass attempts last season, he threw one interception, a desperation heave with the game already out of reach. "His hands," Harry says, "are huge."
As Russell thumbs his new BlackBerry Storm, he is asked how his thumbs, which look like a lineman's, navigate the tiny touchscreen letters. "I get around on it," he says, chuckling.
O'Brien doesn't worry too much about Wilson's height. Though O'Brien didn't work at Boston College until he became head coach there in 1997, he had heard plenty about a little guy who once played for the Eagles. "There was a guy at BC named Flutie who made a pretty good living throwing it and running around," O'Brien says.
O'Brien believes he and his assistants must help Russell, whose scrambling ability keeps opposing defensive coordinators on edge, understand that sometimes the potential gain is greater if he ignores his instinct to run and waits for a receiver to spring open. "His first reaction is to take off and run -- which is not unlike any young quarterback," O'Brien says. "But if there's an opportunity to throw the ball, then he's got to trust his arm, trust the read and throw the ball. That's something we've got to help him get better at. He's been hurt three times running around."
The first injury silenced a packed stadium. During the season opener against South Carolina, Wilson ran a quarterback draw. He tucked the ball, turned and ran smack into defensive end Jordin Lindsey. Lindsey's hit drove Wilson's head into the leg of defensive end Cliff Matthews, who was rushing from the other side. Wilson lay on the turf for several minutes before being carried off on a stretcher. He suffered a concussion and sat out a win against William and Mary. He doesn't remember the injury, but he does remember how fast the game seemed before it. "When I look back at then compared to now, everything has slowed down so much," he says. "It's probably 50 percent slower."
Wilson returned the following week and split time with Nebraska transfer Harrison Beck in a loss at Clemson. The following week, things looked as though they would get worse against an East Carolina team coming off wins against Virginia Tech and West Virginia. But Wilson threw a 5-yard touchdown to George Bryan with 1:05 remaining to tie the score at 24, and Andre Brown carried twice for 26 yards and a touchdown in overtime to complete the upset.
Few knew, but Wilson had injured his shoulder against the Pirates. He missed the following week's game against South Florida, and the Wolfpack hit rock bottom with a 41-10 loss. Wilson returned as the starter against Boston College, kicking off a trio of moral victories in which N.C. State improved each week but lost every time. Finally, on Nov. 8 at Duke, everything clicked. The Wolfpack beat the Blue Devils, then edged Wake Forest at home and crushed North Carolina in Chapel Hill. By the time N.C. State beat Miami, Wilson had become the most exciting player in the ACC.
Now, he's fighting for his job. O'Brien doesn't believe in ceding jobs to veterans. "Everybody competes," he says. "They don't own the jersey. N.C. State owns the jersey." That's fine with Wilson. "It's not going to affect me at all," he says. "I'm a competitor. I want the best man to play."
So Wilson will compete, just as he did last August while his family dealt with the fallout from his father's stroke. Wilson wanted to drive home and stay by his father's bedside as he had that summer after sixth grade. His parents told him to stay in Raleigh and fight for his job. He fought and won. He believes he'll do it again. Neither his knee, the Wally Pipp factor nor uncertainty will stop him.
"I'm not really a look-down-the-road type of guy," he said. "I worry about each day. I've got a lot on my plate already right now, so I'm not really worried about that. I know the opportunities will come, and I know I've just got to keep competing and get better every day. If I do that, things will fall into place."
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