As a running back at Calvary, Brandon Wilson offered plenty of evidence he could play at the highest level of college football.
Still, a broken leg suffered during his sophomore season and a broken foot the next year cast enough doubt to keep coaches from offering a scholarship, despite Wilson’s size, speed and an outstanding senior year. Late in the process after he made plans to play at a junior college, Evangel coach Byron Dawson — the Eagles’ defensive coordinator at the time — helped convince Houston to make Wilson part of its 2012 recruiting class, and the Cougars continue to reap the rewards.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound former track star began his senior year on the preseason All-American Athletic Conference First Team as a kick returner for multiple publications and Athlon named him to the All-AAC Second Team as a cornerback. After he recorded a team-high 10 tackles and returned a missed field goal 109 yards to help No. 15 Houston upset No. 3 Oklahoma, the Walter Camp Football Foundation named Wilson its National Player of the Week.
Not bad for someone who never played defensive back in high school.
“He’s got that God-gifted speed and burst,” Calvary coach John Bachman said. “That’s just something he has whether he’s the running back hitting the hole or the defensive back catching up.”
Both Bachman and Airline coach Bo Meeks, who coached Wilson at Calvary prior to his senior season, said they were surprised by the position change Houston made in the spring following Wilson’s redshirt freshman season. Still, they never doubted he would be successful.
In a phone interview on Monday, Wilson said the transition took a lot of hard work and he remembers losing plenty of one-on-one battles with wide receivers. Starting on special teams, he steadily progressed to a regular contributor as a freshman before becoming a starter as a sophomore and eventually one of the AAC’s top cornerbacks.
“It was hard,” Wilson said. “But I got through it. The toughest part was just having to adjust to having the mindset as a defensive back, if you get beat deep, you’ve got to bounce back and forget the last play and move on and just keep playing throughout the game.”
One thing he didn’t need to learn was what to do if he ever got his hands on the football. Wilson said his running back instincts always kick in, and he made his first big splash with a 78-yard touchdown return of a blocked kick as a freshman against UT San Antonio.
When injuries decimated Houston’s backfield so much last season its coaches asked for players with experience at tailback, Wilson gladly volunteered. Less than a week later, he ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns in a 52-31 win over No. 15 Navy before adding 70 more rushing yards to help the Cougars win the AAC championship against Temple.
Those performances and Wilson’s standout career at Houston might not have been possible without a sensational night capped off by an unforgettable run against Evangel in 2011. With barely a minute left and Calvary trailing 38-35 in a back-and-forth game that included Wilson’s 99-yard punt return, Bachman remembers calling a timeout to make sure the ball went to his best player on fourth and 4.
An Evangel defender broke through to hit Wilson in the backfield, but he refused to go down and sprinted down the sideline for a 73-yard game-winning touchdown. That game and a couple brief conversations left a lasting impression on Dawson, convincing him to speak on Wilson’s behalf to a former assistant who had moved on to take a job at Houston.
“It was our pleasure to help Brandon because he’s such a great kid, a great football player and he comes from a great family,” Dawson said. “Just his speed and his toughness, his explosiveness.”
Even more importantly, he loved Wilson’s character, work ethic and academic prowess, which led to honors in the classroom as a freshman. When Wilson graduated with a degree in sports administration last May, Dawson recalls beaming with pride for a week.
As soon as his college career ends, Wilson intends to start preparing for the 2017 NFL combine. Even though he said he hasn’t spoken with any teams yet, Bachman, Dawson and Meeks all believe the former First Team All-City running back will find a spot in the league.
“He was always a very, very hard worker,” Meeks said. “Just as far as doing what he needed to do to be the best, that’s what he did. I think with the size and strength and the elite speed he has, I think he definitely has a great opportunity to be successful.”