Wilson hoping for healthy season at JMU

Posted: August 17, 2013

Byrd Newspapers

James Madison University’s Jeremiah Wilson’s playing time was limited last year because of lingering hamstring issues.

HARRISONBURG — After several minutes talking about how he committed to Maryland out of high school because it was the only place he ever wanted to go and how he later transferred to James Madison, where he moved from cornerback to safety, Jeremiah Wilson finally got to the caveat.

“I just got to stay healthy,” the former Handley High School football standout said this week.

That’s been an issue at JMU, where he transferred after the 2011 season because he “didn’t fit in [at Maryland] with the new coach [Randy Edsall] and what he had going on there.”

In 2012, hamstring injuries limited Wilson to parts of nine games. He had nine tackles, a third of which came in one game. Wilson wants 2013 to be better. As of Friday, he’d sat out practice for a few days for precautionary reasons after his seemingly always-suffering hamstrings tightened again.

Wilson said it’s not serious, and that if the Dukes, ranked 19th in The Sports Network’s Top 25 Division I-AA poll, had a game today — they don’t open until Aug. 31, when they host Central Connecticut State at 6 p.m. — he would play. And JMU needs him to.

Madison moved Wilson to weak safety because of depth problems. Right now, the big-smiling-and-dreadlocked 5-foot-10, 195-pound redshirt junior is the projected starter, alongside all-conference star free safety Dean Marlowe, and has no established backup.

“That’s as big a problem as we have right now,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said, referring to the backup-safety situation.

If Wilson can stay on the field, he might, to an extent, solve that problem. After struggling at cornerback, JMU secondary coach Tony LeZotte suggested moving Wilson to safety during spring practice. It’s been a good move.

“Last August, he just really struggled at corner,” Matthews said. “As time went along — it was not his natural position. The defensive staff shared my opinion on it, so when we started in the spring, Tony wanted to work him at safety, and so from the first day, he started working at safety, and he’s very good there.”

Said LeZotte: “When you look at corners, you always look at guys who can open up their hips and turn and run. … Jeremiah’s a little bit stiffer than you want in a corner, and we were like: ‘He did corner pretty well, but was he great at it? No.’ But, at the end of the day, we’re trying to get our best 11 on the field. … I think [safety] is his natural position.”

Wilson, if his hamstrings can handle it, will take over for Jakarie Jackson, who graduated. Wilson said the move has been relatively easy, and that he likes the freedom playing safety gives him. Instead of being locked onto one guy, he can rove about and give abuse instead of take it.

“I just love hitting people,” said Wilson, who rushed for almost 1,500 yards as a high school junior and was rated a three-star prospect as an “athlete” by Rivals.com. “I’m used to everybody hitting me, tackling me, I feel like it’s my turn to start delivering the blow. I just felt like I can make a lot of plays, especially now that I’m at safety.”

It represents somewhat of a philosophy change for Wilson. At Handley, Wilson played both running back and cornerback. He admitted that running back got more of his focus. When asked if he played defense in high school, he said: “Yeah, I did. I played it’? But I didn’t really go hard at it. I was out there. … I was into it. But I was just always so exhausted from playing running back. Now, I’m just strictly defense now.”

It sounds like that’s going to be the case for a while. At Maryland, Wilson returned five kickoffs for an average of 24.4 yards as a redshirt freshman. He also returned kicks last year for JMU, but that’s likely not happening this season. Matthews said he wants to keep Wilson’s hamstrings spry and Wilson on the field, where the Dukes believe Wilson can be a force.

“He’s a physical guy. He weighs right around 200,” said LeZotte, a former star free safety for JMU from 2004-07. “He understands what he has to do, and Coach Matthews always harps on — you have a good defense when you have two guys who are active safeties. We’re kind of the erasers of everything. Whether it’s the defensive line or the linebackers, if anybody makes a mistake, we’ve got to get them on the ground.”

To make sure he’s the guy doing that, Wilson said he’s taking extra care of his hamstrings, doing “pre-hab” in addition to rehab to just keep playing — and he doesn’t care at what position.

“I just want to be on the field,” he said. “I played defense when I was in little league but never full-time. But yeah, I feel like I’ve adjusted well to [safety]. I try to watch as much film as I can and just try to watch what all the great people do and be like them.”