Patient Wilson earns lead role at UW

  • John Sleeper / Herald Writer
  • Thursday, September 6, 2001 9:00pm
  • Sports

By John Sleeper

Herald Writer

SEATTLE – Matthias Wilson watched others pass him, one by one, on the Washington Huskies’ depth chart at tailback.

Willie Hurst. Braxton Cleman. Rich Alexis. Sean Sweat.

Then the coaching staff switched Wilson to fullback, and the same thing happened. He was behind John Hart. Ken Walker came over from linebacker, and plop, he fell in right in front of Wilson. Even defensive tackle Spencer Marona moved over. Yep, ahead of Wilson.

Meanwhile, Wilson spent his time on the practice field getting mauled by the first-team defenders, who would practically leap over hopelessly overmatched scout-team offensive linemen and treated Wilson as if he’d stolen from them.

It wasn’t supposed to have been this way.

Wilson came to the Huskies a heavily decorated running back from Ferndale. In Ferndale coach Vic Randall’s run-first-last-and-only offensive scheme, Wilson rolled up a state-record 2,678 yards as a senior in 1997. He led the state in rushing his junior and senior years and was named Washington’s Player of the Year by the Associated Press and two newspapers.

Then at the UW, Wilson was little more than a tackling dummy. He never got into a game. Not until last year’s Apple Cup. And even then, not until the Huskies held a 51-3 lead with a few minutes left.

Now a junior, he is Washington’s starting fullback. He stuck it out. He never quit. It finally paid off.

“I just took it as an opportunity to play against one of the top defenses in college football,” Wilson said. “I figured that if I could run against them, I could run against anyone.

“I told that to the other running backs in our scout team. It was a way to get better. We had to be out there, whether or not we wanted to be. We might as well make the best of it.”

Wilson’s emergence to replace Pat Conniff ended the coaching staff’s experiment to make a fullback out of Marona. Wilson, a weightroom fanatic who has gained 25 pounds since high school and now weighs 215, showed running backs coach Tony Alford a cheerful willingness to block. And, in a mode completely foreign in Randall’s offense, Wilson has shown reliable hands as a receiver out of the backfield.

“He needs a lot of improvement, but he’s really come a long way,” Alford said. “The guy wants to learn. He wants to work at it. He’s a good athlete. He’s strong. And he’s going to help this football team, somehow.”

It’s just that the coaching staff didn’t know how. Ever since spring drills in April, coaches bounced Wilson from tailback to fullback to tailback again.

“The coaches probably just decided to stick me in one position and just leave me there,” Wilson said. “They probably were thinking I could do a lot better. I know I can play tailback, but I know I can play fullback, too. I just want to play. If I can get on the field as a fullback, that’s what I want to do.”

It’s a whole lot better than sitting on the sidelines, watching others get in games, going on road trips, doing something besides getting hammered by defenders. Wilson remembers the low times, bruised and battered during the dark, rainy practices when he wondered whether he’d ever play.

“You definitely have your bad days, your bad practices,” Wilson said. “There were definitely times when I’d say to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ It made it especially hard when other guys were transferring. I always thought I’d want to stay here. The hard work definitely paid off.”

Wilson even thought of transferring and had several conversations with UW coach Rick Neuheisel.

“He told me he didn’t want me to leave,” Wilson said. “He said he wanted me to stay and play, which was cool.”

Saturday against Michigan, Wilson figures to find out just how cool it is.

Athletes helping Williams: At Saturday’s game, UW student-athletes from the other 22 athletic teams will be on hand at the Husky Stadium tunnels to accept donations for the Curtis Williams Fund. Williams, a former UW safety, sustained a severe spinal-cord injury last season in a game against Stanford. The injury left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Recently, a pacemaker-like device was implanted that allows Williams to breathe without the use of a respirator. At latest report, Williams was able to spend as much as 12 hours at a time off the respirator. That allows him to speak more easily and to operate voice-activated computers

Michigan injuries: Michigan’s starting linebackers, Larry Foote and Eric Brackins, have been slowed with injuries. Brackins missed Saturday’s opener against Miami (Ohio) because of a sprained ankle. Foote, an All-America candidate, left the Miami game with an undisclosed injury.

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