Back J.J. Wilcox and Company, Coming Through

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J.J. Wilcox and Company, Coming Through

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Friday night J.J. Wilcox will be surrounded by family and friends, anxious to share the culmination of his efforts with those he will tell you earned those accolades right by his side.

If you have followed the pre-draft process since the end of the college football season, one of the more interesting storylines has been the rise of versatile defensive back J.J. Wilcox. A safety from FCS Georgia Southern, his stock has skyrocketed into, by some estimations, the late second round. Fans and analysts alike have searched far and wide for answers; where, exactly, has this dynamic athlete come from? A pigskin powerhouse with a tradition as proud as any in the game would simply be the start. 

A 6'0'', 213-pound pure pigskin playmaker, Wilcox hails from Cairo, Georgia, a small town in the southwest corner of the state and, more importantly, the famed home of the Syrupmakers. There he helped lead his team to the 2008 state championship and an infamous title game loss to Carver-Columbus, with future Georgia All-American Jarvis Jones, the year prior. After earning all-area honors as a wide receiver, Wilcox signed with Georgia Southern and began his college career as a skill position talent.

Featured first on the perimeter, Wilcox would start four games as a freshman and finish with 16 catches for 179 yards. The following fall, debuting in Jeff Monken's triple-option offense, Wilcox moved from receiver to slot back and immediately found his comfort zone. He would rush 85 times for 484 yards and six touchdowns, catching 22 passes for 551 yards and three touchdowns at a school record 25 yards per reception. Wilcox spent his junior season in a similar role, averaging nearly ten yards a carry and 24 yards per catch.   

After three years on offense, Wilcox, a team-first player, made a dramatic switch to safety prior to the start of fall camp. The decision proved to be a revelation as Wilcox's natural athleticism transitioned smoothly into the defensive backfield. Agile and quick, his movements were fluid. Aggressive and decisive, Wilcox's instincts were even more on point. He would finish second on the team with 88 tackles and a pair of interceptions, showing an uncanny comfort in run defense and staggering closing speed when contesting balls thrown downfield. Wilcox also excelled on special teams, compiling nearly 800 return yards.

Those paid to pay attention took notice.

Despite spending less than one full year at safety, Wilcox received an invite to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. He arrived as a mere name on a notepad. He left with a prospect bio and a personal story.

It's there a humble young man from the home of Whigham's Rattlesnake Roundup believes everything changed. 

"I would definitely say the Senior Bowl was an eye-opener, that whole week," Wilcox acknowledged on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "Every day of that week I strived to get better. A lot of scouts commended me and told me that I got better and was one of the best safeties there. Just to hear that respect from the NFL meant a lot to me, really pushed me and opened my eyes that I might actually have a chance to accomplish my goal."     

Through all of his gridiron successes, Wilcox never saw his current fame and recognition as how he would transition from his previous role to the next. He had professional aspirations, sure, but was ready and willing to fight for positioning as an under-the-radar next-level prospect. Before his name was ever on a draft board, however, there was a voice telling Wilcox that all of this would one day be within reach. The irony, of course, was that it wasn't his.  

"To be honest, I didn't," Wilcox responded, when asked if he saw his current status coming. "I thought I was a good player and thought I would maybe get a shot through free agency. But my dad had a dream about it. He always told me that I had talent. He said, last year around this time, that Mel Kiper would be calling my name this time next year. I worked towards that. I put that on my board, my mirror, my wall. It took a lot of hard work and dedication. I didn't know, but my dad did and my family did and that's the main thing that helps you get over obstacles and doubting yourself. I'm glad I'm here now. It's a dream come true."    

We now wait at a standstill in the lead-up to the NFL Draft, holding a proverbial spot in line at the dreaded DMV. Players have done all they can do, a long and arduous waiting game has ensued. In the days leading up to Thursday, many prospects are understandably obsessing over their undetermined future. Wilcox, he believes with good reason, is more focused on his past.

"I feel like I am a commodity to a lot of people. I didn't get here by myself. First of all, God, then my parents, then my school and my community helped me. Georgia Southern opened that door, gave me an opportunity to showcase my talents for people to know and represent them. It's been the best four years of my life," he beamed. "The community, the school, the alumni, the student base, they have supported me through this whole process."

That passion and pride extends cross-state, back home to where this dream both figuratively and literally grew legs and took off.  

"There are a lot of people that believed I could do it and gave me great advice. Just to see the little kids look up to you and cherish you, that's always what I wanted to do when I was growing up playing football in the backyard. I'm living it, I can't complain at all," Wilcox continued.

Looking back, Wilcox is an albeit key footnote on a busy timeline for Georgia Southern athletics. This past football season the Eagles made their third consecutive FCS semifinal and claimed a share of the Southern Conference championship. The end of the college basketball season saw the end Charlton Young era in Statesboro. And, most notably, the school recently accepted a formal invite into the FBS Sun Belt Conference. As busy as his alma mater has been, Wilcox has been on a wild ride all his own. 

"It's been hectic. I've never been consistently parked for two or three days, I've just been traveling and moving. The combine was pretty tough, staying up late and waking up early for one of the biggest interviews you will probably have. You have pro day, training for the Senior Bowl. I've been moving, I feel like a pilgrim," he laughed. "When you are chasing your dreams, you don't think about soaking it all up. Now that I finally have some time to take a deep breath and soak it all in, I'm enjoying it."

Even as personal preparations have slowed, Wilcox's admiration and appreciation for those around him as not. With the biggest day of his football career mere hours away, and that being the ideal time to reflect on his own achievements, the former Georgia Southern star continues to wedge in compliments like he does his helmet and shoulder pads at the line of scrimmage.

"First of all I want to thank my teammates back at Georgia Southern. They opened the window. If they didn't do what they did, I wouldn't have been able to showcase my talents on film. I first want to take my hat off to those guys, they helped me out tremendously, also the coaching staff," Wilcox continued. "My family back home. I can definitely say I've been blessed to be around a great group of people that have cared for me and watched over me to help me get where I'm at."  

Friday night Wilcox will be surrounded by family and friends, anxious to share the culmination of his efforts with those he will tell you earned those accolades right by his side. 

"It's a good feeling, but at the same time it's an anxious feeling like the butterflies before your first game, the first play or the first hit. But overall it's a good feeling. All of the hard work is paying off. Your family is proud, your city is proud. Everybody is just proud of you, seeing a small town boy chase his dreams to the NFL," he added.

Who knows where Wilcox is headed. Where he is coming from, however, is something he will never forget.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports