It didn’t take long for Trey Wilson to send the message that Casey Hayward wasn’t the only Vanderbilt cornerback that opposing quarterbacks needed to be wary of.
Hayward, a preseason All-American coming off a six-interception season, was the known quantity entering his senior year. Wilson had made one start in the previous two seasons. The latter quickly made a name for himself in the 2011 season opener against Elon when he recorded his first career interception and returned it 21 yards to the end zone. By the end of third game, the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder had three interceptions and two touchdowns.
“I feel like if there is a ball thrown at me, it’s mine,” Wilson said. “You’ve got to have confidence to play corner.”
Hayward, who tied the school record with 15 career interceptions, is preparing for the next level after attending last month’s NFL combine with a former Vanderbilt teammate, safety Sean Richardson.
Beginning his fourth and final spring at Vanderbilt, Wilson appears to possess enough confidence and talent to fill Hayward’s void and emerge as the Commodores’ next shutdown cornerback.
“I’ll let y'all give me the labels and everything,” the rising senior said last week before practices began on Friday. “I’m going to do the best I can, on and off the field, to give this team a chance to win.”
Vanderbilt is building quite the track record for sending cornerbacks to the NFL.
Hayward hopes to be the latest Commodore corner to hear his name called in the NFL draft. Tampa Bay took Myron Lewis in the third round in 2010. The year before, D.J. Moore was selected in the fourth round by Chicago.
“Great competitors, man. Great competitors,” Wilson said. “A lot of times people look at us as undervalued players just because we came to a small school or are considered a small school. We’re competitors just like everybody else. We go out every Saturday and compete against some of the best receivers in the country, some of the best athletes in the country period, in the SEC. We just work to the best of our abilities and let our results speak for itself.”
Wilson came to Vanderbilt after starting three years for powerhouse Evangel Christian Academy, a small private school in Shreveport, La. He received interest from area schools, including LSU, but settled on Vanderbilt.
That coaching staff, headed up by Bobby Johnson, is no longer on campus. In fact, Wilson is on his third different position coach in as many years. After one year, Wes McGriff left for a similar job at Ole Miss. George Barlow, who spent the last three years at New Mexico, was hired in January to coach the defensive backs.
“You go back to high school, I think I’ve had six [position] coaches in seven years,” Wilson said. “Everything has its likes and dislikes about it. You take a little bit and learn from each coaching staff. Overall, it just teaches you to keep rolling with the punches. You can’t let what is out of your hands slow you down. I can only worry about the things I can control.”
Four games into last season, Barlow was named the interim head coach at New Mexico after Mike Locksley was fired. He spent three years as the Lobos’ defensive coordinator. Before that, he spent 10 years at James Madison and was the defensive coordinator for the last five seasons. He helped the Dukes capture the I-AA national championship in 2004.
“He has tremendous experience,” head coach James Franklin said. “That is another really good resource on a very interesting defensive staff. We’ve got three guys on our defensive staff [Barlow, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and linebackers coach Brent Pry] that all have been highly, highly successful I-AA coordinators. I think that is somewhat unique. So I’m looking forward to seeing George’s impact on those guys.”
At the forefront will be Wilson, though he can’t sneak up on anyone this year after a junior season filled with 30 tackles and eight pass breakups. With a solid senior season, he could put himself in position to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. In the immediate future, though, he’s focused on stepping in as a leader on a defensive unit that lost four starters.
“I’ll gladly step into one of those [leadership] roles,” he said. “Those guys were not only big leaders but they made a real difference on the field, coming in and making plays. … That is definitely a goal of mine — to play at the next level. But right now, I’m just trying to get better from day to day.”