David Wilson breaks out for the Giants, and there’s no putting him back in

David Wilson (nfl.com)
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“Speed” is a vague term in football. There’s track speed, football speed, top-end speed, lateral speed and short-area-speed, among other ways to describe how quickly a player moves around the field in different circumstances.

Putting a finger on David Wilson’s speed isn’t that hard: He reaches peak acceleration in a split second, so that he’s going full bore while other players are still feeling around for the rhythm of the play. You see it in the highlights, but the effect can only truly be captured live, when Wilson breaks off a spectacular play that’s over before you even realize what's happening.

In a similar head-spinning blur, David Wilson just set a franchise record for all-purpose yards in a game, with 327. (A hundred of those yards, in the Giants' 52-27 win over the Saints, came on running plays and the rest from kickoff returns.)

Wilson emerged not a moment too soon from the coaching staff’s doghouse, where he has long been relegated because of supposed struggles in pass protection.

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In the locker room after the game, a towel-clad Eli Manning turned to Wilson, whose locker is a few feet away, and said, “You know what your best play of the night was? Picking up that free safety” on a passing play.

The kid’s getting it, evidently. Still, it’s easy to guess why pass protection hasn’t come naturally to him: It’s a retreating, reactive task, in which the defensive player dictates the action. Wilson’s game, by contrast, is defined by itchy impatience to burst forward as quickly as possible.

Yesterday, when a reporter asked him about what goes through his mind when he sees a large hole before him, he responded, “When holes open up like that I just thank God for giving me the speed to take advantage. You’d hate to be one of those guys who just looks at the hole and say, 'Man, I coulda took that if I was faster.’”

Wilson’s demeanor is playful, but he wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek.  See, Wilson wants badly to make big plays. Whether it was the good fortune of genetics or the act of a supreme being that enables him to do so, he’s grateful.

THERE WERE TOO MANY GOOD BLOCKS to count on Wilson’s touchdown return, which tied the game at 7-7 and shucked off a feeling of dread in the stands.

Among them: Spencer Paysinger and Mark Herzlich kicked out two guys on Wilson’s left. Jim Cordle got the first man down on Wilson’s right, standing the Saint up in his tracks so that Wilson didn’t have to compromise his route up the field. Because of Cordle’s stout block, and also because of Wilson’s pure speed, the Saints’ end man drastically miscalculated where Wilson would be when he swooped in for a tackle attempt. By the time he got to where thought Wilson would be, Wilson was three yards past him, with only the kicker to beat.

After the game, Cordle said of Wilson, “He’s so fast, where it’s like, almost easy. Like if you hit your guy, like he’s gonna make a cut really fast, and be through the hole. He has so much confidence, so he’s gonna hit it, and hit it fast.”

Cordle was a completely anonymous special-teams and reserve lineman before last Monday. Then he got on Giants fans’ radar for all the wrong reasons: His two holding penalties on kick returns contributed to the Giants’ poor field position. They were emblematic of a night on which the Giants did just enough stupid things to lose by 1 point.

But Cordle stood as a happy redemption story after this blowout win. Reporters surrounded him, and he provided them with an interesting nugget of information: It wasn’t until after Eli Manning’s pick-six, which put the Giants down 7-0, that word got around the sideline that both the Cowboys and Redskins had won their games.

“We just threw that interception for a touchdown, and they put the scores up, and it was like, ‘Ugh. Oh boy. Like, we need something here,’” said Cordle, who despite his 300-pound size, lacks Big Guy swagger in his comportment.

Cordle said the play design was a relatively straightforward middle return, to the wide side of the field," he said. "Obviously we scout where they like to kick the ball. He kicked it right where we wanted him to."

Wilson, too, pointed to the four huge returns on Sunday--three by him, one by Jerrel Jernigan--as a continuation of a good week of preparation.

“We go through the special teams script each week, and sometimes it’s not there and sometimes it is," he said. "This week on every return that I did in practice, it looked pretty good."

Then he added: “And for the special teams meeting before every game, coach hand out assignment sheets. And this game he didn’t hand me one. So I went to ask him I said, 'Coach, where my assignment sheet?'  He said, ‘You don’t need one. Just run fast.’”

WILSON, A NATIVE OF DANVILLE, VIRGINIA, EXHIBITS a blend of bashfulness and playful cockiness in interviews. It's partly contrived; he plays up his hayseed-rookie aspect, emphasizing the cultural gap between him and the frumpy middle-aged reporters peppering him with questions. But he clearly loves the attention, and proceeds through interviews engagingly with an eager smile on his face.

On whether he had a good feeling the night before the game: “I fell asleep watching the Bo Jackson documentary on ESPN, so maybe I was dreaming.”

On his celebratory back flip, now immortalized by the New York City tabloids, and its impressiveness compared to Victor Cruz’s salsa dance: “I mean, with the salsa you need coordination. I mean, not that many people can dance and not that many people can flip. So I think they both have their own spice.”

On the elusive zig-zagging he used to elude the kicker on his kickoff return: After a season of near-misses, when did he know this one was going for a touchdown? “When the kicker turned around the second time.”

THE KICKOFF RETURNS WE KNEW ABOUT; WILSON has been excellent all year in that department. Yesterday’s bigger positive takeaway was Wilson’s performance in the running game, where he led the Giants with 100 yards.

Sure, most of this total came from his 52-yard dash late in the fourth quarter. But even subtracting that, Wilson had 48 yards on 12 carries, for a perfectly respectable average of 4 yards per.

All season long, Wilson has been used either not at all or on a small handful plays specially designed to take advantage of his big play ability. The result has been that he’s out of rhythm and trying too hard to make up in one play the rushing yards he’s missed out on all season; it’s the football equivalent of trying to hit a 10-run home run with every swing.

Wilson was finally a regular part of the offense yesterday. He was able to settle into himself, and to show that there’s more to his game that pure speed. Case in point, his six-yard touchdown run, during which he powered his way through a tackle by Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Vilma outweighs Wilson by 25 pounds, but in football, as any coach will tell you, the low man wins. Wilson got leverage and accelerated his legs through Vilma to reach the end zone. Then he used that same explosive power for his second back flip of the day.

Of course, his signature play was the 52-yard touchdown, on which he took a pitch, saw a hole, planted his foot, and flew through it.

The touchdown gave the Giants 52 points on the day, their highest point total since 1986. Wilson’s run, too, evoked that championship season: Specifically, in Wilson’s resemblance to that team’s running back, Joe Morris, another short-but-not-small back with a similar one-cut-and-go style.

Like Wilson, Morris bided his time on the bench for a while before coaches fully trusted him as a starting running back. After two-and-a-half years of frustration, Morris seized his chance and turned in two seasons that were among the best any Giant running back ever had.

Yesterday, there was Wilson, finally getting his chance and running with it, toward his dazzlingly bright future in New York.