On most days at Minnesota Vikings Training Camp, second-year linebacker Eric Wilson wears the same shirt underneath his purple #50 uniform. It’s a simple black undershirt with four words down the bottom left side. The small, all-caps print is to make out from the sideline even if it’s usually visible below Wilson’s practice jersey. It reads:
It’s a mantra that Wilson has taken to heart since joining the team in 2017.
As an undersized and undrafted rookie linebacker coming out of the University of Cincinnati, most pundits and fans didn’t think Wilson had much of a PRAYer to make the 53-man roster. He played wide receiver and safety at Lee M. Thurston High School in Redford, Michigan. While he was an excellent athlete that also excelled in track in basketball at the suburban Detroit high school, Wilson weighed only 205 pounds when he committed to Northwestern University in 2012. He redshirted that season and transferred to Cincinnati after his lone year in Evanston, thinking that the Bearcats were a better fit for him than the Wildcats.
After sitting out his 2013 transfer year, Wilson played reserve linebacker the following season after adding about 25 pounds to his frame. He finally got the starting job in 2015, earning second-team All-AAC honors with 106 tackles. Wilson upgraded to first-team All-AAC his senior year, amassing 129 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks.
Wilson’s breakout senior season put him on the radar of a lot of NFL scouts. Most sites projected him to go around the 5th to 7th round range. However, his name went uncalled on draft day. The biggest knock on Wilson coming out of college: his size. At 6’2” and 230 pounds, he was definitely undersized for a linebacker despite some impressive numbers at his pro day in Cincinnati. The Vikings have traditionally taken fliers on excellent athletes throughout Rick Spielman’s tenure, so they ended up signing Wilson as an undrafted free agent.
He did not disappoint. There weren’t a lot of 53-man roster projections that included Wilson before Training Camp in Mankato last year. By the end of camp, there weren’t many that could deny that he had earned a spot. Wilson impressed throughout the preseason and was one of the six linebackers left standing when the dust cleared.
Although Wilson isn’t the long shot he was at this time last year, his mentality remains unchanged. “I feel like my mindset still has to be the same. I need to focus on the things I need to get better at and continually improve on the things I’m good at.”
One thing is blatantly obvious upon seeing Wilson at camp this year: he has been TRAINing in the offseason. Wilson has always had a very well-defined and muscular frame, but the bulk he has added is definitely noticeable. He’s checking in around 235 this year. “I feel good at that weight, like I’m still able to move fast and not be too tight.” Wilson credits his “pre-hab” routine of stretching and the new cryotherapy chamber at TCO to help maintain his body off the field so he can be at his best on it. “The new facility helps us be at our best throughout the process. It’s awesome.”
Like many linebackers that go late in the draft or not at all, Wilson found a spot on the roster by making a name for himself on special teams in 2017. He played nearly 70% of the special teams snaps for the Vikings last season. However, he didn’t see any action on defense, which is the next hurdle he’s trying to CONQUER with the Vikings.
“I would love to play on defense...my role last year was really special teams. If I were to move into a bigger role this year, that would be awesome. But special teams, I love that too. I love making an impact on the game, whatever way that’s going to come.”
Since Wilson is still taking mostly second team snaps in practice, he realizes that he’ll need to be ready to continue to play a lot of special teams this season. His coordinator seems to have Wilson ready, even with the latest NFL rule changes. “[Mike] Priefer is getting us prepared for all the changes. Especially kickoffs with the big rule change on kickoff returns with double teams and how many people you can have in a certain zone. We’re gonna test those out this first preseason game.”
Saturday night’s game against the Denver Broncos can’t come soon enough for Vikings players that are growing a little weary of only going against their teammates. “Things are getting a little chippy. We’re hitting each other all day long and it’s going to be nice to hit someone different for a change.”
Wilson will use the preseason to start working on goals he has for the season. He doesn’t have any specific milestones or snap counts in mind for the upcoming season; he simply wants to help the Vikings any way he can. “For me, it’s mostly just about making sure I’m in the right place at the right time. When the opportunity presents itself, go and make the play for our team to put us in a better position to win.”
Will Wilson be able to REPEAT the unexpected success of his rookie campaign? He certainly appears to have endeared himself to the more celebrated linebackers on the Vikings roster. During the Saturday night practice, Wilson intercepted a pass underneath and ran it back for a faux pick-six. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks ran down the field with Wilson despite the fact that they were only watching behind the play to start.
Just noticed this -- Kendricks and Barr, watching from a "sideline", immediately jump and escort Eric Wilson to the end zone on his pick six from the night scrimmage. Cool to see their genuine excitement for him pic.twitter.com/riS7CQnyad— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) August 6, 2018
Wilson’s eyes lit up with a wide smile recalling the play, and he is very appreciative of the guidance from the veterans. “Those guys are very helpful in learning the game and helping me any way they can. Any questions I have, I know I can go to them. It was awesome to have them escort me to the end zone on Saturday. We have a great group of guys. We’re just pushing each other to get better every day.”
Wilson has played the role of mentor this year as well. His college teammate, Mike Boone, is trying to repeat Wilson’s feat of making the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati.
“I talked to [Boone] before he came and at mini camp. On what things he can expect, how to carry himself, some of the habits he should develop. Some of those ‘pre-hab’ things we were talking about to make sure his body’s right. And especially to make sure what he knows what he’s doing on the field. I think that’s the easiest way to play yourself out of the league—to not know what you’re doing and have those simple mistakes. I think he’s done a good job so far and he’s showing his skills out here in camp.”
Boone isn’t the only former college teammate of Wilson that’s currently on the Vikings roster. Trevor Siemian was the quarterback for that 2012 Northwestern team. Suddenly, Siemian and Wilson have found themselves once again wearing purple as teammates six years later. “It’s funny how things work out. This NFL world is actually much smaller the more you look at things. Trevor’s a good guy and it’s fun to be around him again.”
It certainly appears that Wilson has an inside track on making the roster again. He’s currently second on the unofficial depth chart at weakside linebacker behind Ben Gedeon and is still a crucial part of most special teams units. Wilson has had another solid camp thus far and should see quite a bit of action during the preseason.
Until then, it’s more of the same: pray, train, conquer, repeat.