August 6, 2004
Pats' Big Secret Is Now Out
BY: Christopher Price
Eugene Wilson has been exposed.
Last year, the Illinois product was able to sneak in under the radar as a second-round pick, taking over at safety when the Patriots dumped Lawyer Milloy before the start of the season. The converted cornerback then became one of the top rookies in the AFC, picking off four passes and following through on more hits than Tony Soprano. Just ask receivers around the league -- particularly those from Indianapolis and Dallas, who were the target of some teeth-rattling hits from Wilson. His reward was a berth on ESPN.com's All-Rookie Team and a Super Bowl ring.
But those days are done. With Wilson's rookie hits now the stuff of highlight films, Bill Belichick's secret weapon has been exposed for the rest of the NFL to see. The New England head coach said Thursday it's now up to Wilson to make the adjustment.
"Everybody knows them. Everybody has seen them," Belichick said of the challenges faced by players coming off successful rookie seasons. "Everybody has a way that they think they can beat them, and they will be more specifically inclined to run those types of plays rather than ones he was naturally good at."
Wilson said Thursday he anticipates the added attention, but he said he'll keep a simple attitude toward this season.
"I expect to go out there and do my job," he said flatly when asked what was expected of him this year. "I just try to do what the coaches tell me to do, and do whatever I can to help the team."
There wasn't much that Wilson didn't do to help the team as a rookie. The 5-foot-10 native of Indiana slid seamlessly from cornerback to safety, teaming with veteran Rodney Harrison to help turn the secondary from a giant question mark at the start of the season to one of the team's strengths at the end of the year. Wilson started 15 of the 16 games in the regular season at free safety, as well as all three playoff contests, making a real name for himself when he laid out Colts' receivers Brandon Stokley and Reggie Wayne with vicious hits in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship.
For Wilson, the magic carpet ride of the 14-2 regular-season record was made all the more amazing when you consider the fact that he was not only adjusting to life in the NFL, but he was doing so at a whole new position.
"I think it's kind of a spot where I was in the right place at the right time," he said. "I had opportunities to make those plays, and I made them."
Wilson's dream season came to a close in Super Bowl XXXVIII, where he helped the Patriots defeat the Carolina Panthers. But it was a strange day for Wilson, who suffered a nasty groin injury late in the contest that forced him to the sidelines and left him keeping his fingers crossed down the stretch.
"At first, I thought it was maybe a little strain, because I was warm. But after it got cold, it got real stiff and I knew something was wrong," he said. "I still felt the pain, but winning the Super Bowl made it that much better."
The injury required offseason surgery, and Wilson didn't participate in minicamp in June. But the Illinois product has managed to be a full participant over the first week of drills in training camp. He was limping after he came off the field Thursday morning, but attributed it to simple "beginning of camp soreness."
"I'd say it's a regular injury," Wilson said. "It's something that's going to cause some pain, but it's something you could work through. A lot of people have had the same injury and came back from it strong, so I don't see any problems."
In fact, he said he feels a little more comfortable about playing safety, which could mean another long year for NFL wide receivers.
"I feel a little more comfortable, as far as the position I'm in. Last year, having to play safety -- I wasn't familiar with the position," he said. "But now that I've had a year behind me, now I know what I'm doing a little better."
PATS SIGN STUBBLEFIELD
The Patriots shored up their defensive line Thursday with the signing of free agent defensive lineman Dana Stubblefield.
The 33-year-old Stubblefield, who was a key cog in San Francisco's Super Bowl run in 1994, has started 149 games over the course of his 11-year career. In that time, he's amassed 428 career tackles and 53 1/2 sacks. For his efforts, he was selected to the Pro Bowl following the 1994, 1995 and 1997 seasons, and was named The Associated Press NFL defensive player of the year following a career-best 15-sack season in 1997.
However, Stubblefield has something of a checkered reputation. In July, he was fined three games' salary for testing positive for the steroid THG while with Oakland last season. In addition, Stubblefield has appeared before the grand jury investigating a nutritional supplements lab -- the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative -- which has been at the center of a steroids controversy in several sports.
Christopher Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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