It’s never been a question of talent for Missouri junior free safety Thomas Wilson, but he’s never quite matched his production output with immense expectations.
“When I got here last spring (in 2015),” MU safeties coach/co-defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said, “I sat him down and said, ‘Listen, if we just talk about going out and playing ball in the backyard, you’re in the top three right now.’ ”
Despite that early vote of confidence, Wilson, a junior from Buford High in Suwanee, Ga., barely saw the field at safety last season.
He’s started at nickel cornerback and starred on special teams during his first two seasons with the Tigers, but reps with the base defense have been scarce.
“I don’t know if that was just some immaturity as a true sophomore and not really playing much as a freshman, but now he’s really taking ownership of learning the defense and taking pride of doing all the little things and paying attention to details,” Walters said.
It’s made all the difference.
Through spring practice and fall camp, Wilson has put the starting free-safety job on lockdown and emerged as one of the secondary’s top playmakers, according to teammates and coaches.
“He played a lot of nickel last year, but, at safety, he just looks so calm and confident,” junior cornerback Logan Cheadle said. “The fact that he’s consistent, he’s always doing his job and always where he’s supposed to be, is going to take Thomas far. On top of that, he makes plays. That’s kind of an elite combo there.”
Wilson’s always shown flashes of his playmaking talent and ball-hawking skills, but he also found himself blocked from the starting lineup by Ian Simon, a three-year starter at free safety.
Playing a hefty role on special teams, Wilson recorded 17 tackles in 13 games as a freshman, but he only managed 14 tackles in 12 games last season.
It wasn’t quite the jump Wilson was looking to make, but he now believes he’s ready.
“I’m just being more focused every time I go out there,” Wilson said. “I try to be the best teammate and player I can be. I’m trying to be perfect every time I’m out there, doing the right thing and getting everyone else on the same page. … This year, I’m paying a lot more attention to my job and just being a lot more reliable.”
Wilson said he no longer worries about his playing time, personal performance and stats, which helped transform him into a more confident player as his football IQ grows.
“Thomas Wilson has been probably the most-consistent guy in the secondary, hands down,” new defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross said. “He’s done it the right way just about every practice, every rep, so he’s the bar to me that I’m expecting the guys to raise their level to his level right now on that back end.”
Wilson — who chose Mizzou over Kansas State, Tennessee, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Arizona among others — said he’s also enjoying Cross’ slights tweaks to the Tigers’ defense.
“We are more involved now,” Wilson said. “Everything that we’re doing, we make the calls and tell everybody else what to do. … I feel like this defense this year allows the safeties to make more plays.”
Teamed with Anthony Sherrils — a junior returning starter and Hogan Prep graduate, who finished third with 64 tackles last season — Wilson’s emergence potentially gives the squad an elite combo as its last line of defense.
“He’s doing a great job,” Sherrils said of Wilson. “He’s making plays and is very poised. That’s key. We’re asking more of him. With a lot on his plate, he’s doing a great job.”
Senior cornerback Aarion Penton has noticed too, calling Wilson an explosive ball hawk, whose concentration and ball skills set him apart from the crowd.
Don’t be surprised if Wilson buries his total production from the first two seasons within a few games now that he’s set for such a significant role.
“I’m hoping he has a great year,” Walters said. “If it’s anything like it has been in the spring and this fall so far, I think Thomas Wilson is it a name you’re going to hear a lot come the season.”