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Former Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson could emerge as NFL draft-day surprise

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Tyler Wilson training for NFL Combine at IMG Academy

BRADENTON, Fla. – The Great New Thing does not look like Tyler Wilson standing in the pocket. The Great New Thing does not hold tight as the pass rush descends. The Great New Thing does not run to the sideline in long, loping strides to avoid a sack. The Great New Thing is supposed to dash around tacklers and throw while scampering. The Great New Thing is supposed to be dazzling and dynamic and all the words that anyone can invent to explain the way football is going to change.

Except what do you do in the year of the read-option quarterback when all you are is a version of the traditional passer that has worked for decades?

"I'm not going to be that [read-option] guy," Wilson, the former Arkansas quarterback, said this week during a break in his training at the IMG Academy. "I am a guy who uses his own ability."

In every NFL draft there is a Tyler Wilson, a player who the draft experts say is not The Great New Thing. The list of negatives they spill come in a nitpicking torrent: Not fast enough, not big enough, not accurate enough, throws too hard, throws too soft. Then comes the draft day when the player who was supposed to go the second day – or the third – is taking a first-round phone call as his name is announced on national TV.

That's when everyone realizes that something had happened. A meeting. A workout. At some point, the NFL people decided that the man looked like a quarterback after all. They saw presence. They understood that this is what they were searching for all along. They didn't need The Great New Thing, they just needed someone to lead a team in the NFL.

Chris Weinke has watched the process enough. The march of top draft quarterback prospects to the football academy he runs at IMG has been steady these last three years. He molded Cam Newton, tended to Christian Ponder and developed Ryan Tannehill. He spent an afternoon last spring watching a modest prospect from Wisconsin named Russell Wilson and knew he was watching greatness. Weinke, who was an NFL quarterback himself for seven seasons, figures he understands what kind of man will win games in the NFL. He is sure he sees it in Tyler Wilson.

"The things I look for are: Is the guy consistent? Can he be coached? Does he want to be successful?," Weinke said as he sat in his office on Tuesday, one of the last days he will spend with Wilson before the quarterback goes back to Arkansas for his pro day March 15 and then the endless line of interviews with NFL teams. "He's got all three."

The trendy thing to say about next month's draft is that it's missing a great quarterback. In a lot of ways this is why people say the draft is weak at the top. It lacks a big name that everyone can sell. Last year it was easy for the networks to run draft commercials with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. No one is going to make a commercial about Tyler Wilson.

Last year as a starter for the second season, at Arkansas he threw for 3,387 yards and 21 touchdowns, but he also was intercepted 13 times and was sacked 14 times. Given the fact that Arkansas was 4-8 in the abysmal fall that followed coach Bobby Petrino's motorcycle ride, these are not the numbers that flutter the hearts of draft nerds.

Nothing screams The Great New Thing.

And that gnaws at Tyler Wilson – more than it does at any quarterback Weinke has ever seen, including Russell Wilson who seemed to quietly seethe at suggestions he was too small to play in the NFL.

"That's what gets me every night before I go to bed," said Tyler Wilson, who has good size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) and impressive arm strength.

Weinke loves this. He figures every quarterback needs motivation, some kind of a chip on his shoulder to push him to greatness. The one on Tyler Wilson's shoulder is different. It's hard to see when you shake the player's hand and get a warm smile and a good laugh. But Weinke can't help but notice the burning in the two months they have worked together. He sees it in the way the ball fires from Wilson's hands, the way he pushes as he lifts weights and runs sprints and studies in their breakout sessions.

This could all be seen as enthusiasm if it wasn't so obvious that it was coming from a darker place, one fueled by criticism and oversight. Go ahead and talk about all the read-option guys. Say there's no great quarterbacks in this draft. Say the name Tyler Wilson and laugh. But come draft day, he is convinced the chuckles will be gone.

"Watching his film, he's the toughest guy I've ever watched," Weinke said.

Asked how he measures this, Weinke smiled.

"Nobody has taken as many hits and come back to make plays as he has," he replied.

And knowing enough about the NFL and how NFL coaches and general managers work, he is sure someone will watch the same films and will make the same conclusions and will talk to Wilson and feel the passion raging like few other quarterbacks they have seen. They will not be able to resist. They will have to have him.

That then will be the draft day surprise to everyone who heard his name and shrugged and figured they shouldn't care because he wasn't The Great New Thing.

Just a man who wants to show how wrong you are going to be.

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