GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- James Wilson started the 2011 season on an exercise bike but finished it as Florida’s starting left guard.
Which is certainly better than starting a career with a ton of promise and finishing it as one of the bigger busts in school history.
That’s the path Wilson was headed down last season until the NCAA granted him a sixth season, which is allowing him the chance to add a much better ending.
"This is my last chance really to prove it, that I can and show everyone else that I’m just not the hurt James Wilson anymore," Wilson said.
That’s pretty much the way Wilson’s career has been labeled. But that’s expected when you have four knee surgeries and two broken feet in four years. That kept him from building upon the promise of being the nation’s No. 1 offensive guard coming out of St. Augustine, Fla./Nease High School in 2007, and it appeared his career was going to end with him on the scout team.
Wilson wasn’t able to practice with the Gators when they began camp last season because he was out of shape. The coaching staff put him on an exercise bike, but the indignity didn’t end there. Once Wilson lost some weight, getting under 320 pounds, and was able to move well enough, he was able to get on the field -- as a member of the scout team.
But Wilson never pouted -- and if there has been a player at Florida over the past seven years whom no one would have blamed if they had pouted, it was Wilson -- and just kept showing up every day. It was clear by the middle of the season that he needed to be playing more than just spot duty here and there and on special teams on Saturdays.
"I think it was about the fourth or fifth game of the year, you kept noticing this guy on scout team creating some run game issues for our defense and I’m thinking, 'We need to get this guy an opportunity, especially with the way we were struggling to run the football,' " UF coach Will Muschamp said. "And [he] did a really good job the latter part of the season, but he got his weight down and we were able to manage him much better as far as practice is concerned with his knees."
The 6-foot-4 Wilson got more and more playing time as the season progressed and eventually earned the start against Ohio State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
By then he had already decided he wanted to petition the NCAA for an additional season. He got the good news shortly after, but then had a new goal in mind: Making it through spring practice completely healthy.
He did, and after an offseason in which he kept his weight down, he’s the projected starter at left guard. Now he’s finally on the cusp of being able to prove he can be the Wilson the previous coaching staff had hoped for -- even if it took a lot longer than expected.
"Football's a developmental game, but it's really a developmental game on the offensive line," Muschamp said. "The natural progression for an offensive lineman is a little slower, because the game happens so fast. In our league, look at some of the fronts you have to block. There's some issues. So, that's why recruiting is not an exact science. It's a lot of guesswork involved. The mental side of it, the maturity side of it, a lot of those things are hard to figure in, especially from a player coming from high school to college."