ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Perhaps the only people to really doubt whether Russell Wilson would have success in the NFL were draft analysts. It certainly wasn’t two of his more talented college teammates at his stops at Wisconsin and North Carolina State.
For most of the Denver Broncos, their only experience with Wilson came in an exhibition loss to the Seahawks in Seattle in August. They see the scramble plays, the accurate arm and the athleticism.
But for running back Montee Ball and linebacker Nate Irving, they saw more than the playmaking. They played alongside Wilson at the college level. They saw the leadership, the drive and the commitment that helped Wilson become the starting quarterback for the Seahawks and blossom into one of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL.
“I knew that Russell, with his mindset, was going to be a successful quarterback,” said Ball, who played one season — 2010 — with Wilson at Wisconsin. “He’s a leader. He displayed all the great qualities of a quarterback.”
The duo led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, where they lost to Oregon, 45-38. Still, Wilson threw for 3,175 yards and 33 touchdowns and Ball rushed for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Wilson came to the Badgers as a senior transfer after being a three-year starter at North Carolina State. After deciding on Wisconsin the summer before the season, Wilson immersed himself into the playbook, intent on making sure he was ready when the season opened. It amazed his teammates so much they voted him captain.
“As soon as he got there, he was walking around with notecards with the plays on them and stuff like that,” Ball said. “And I was like, ‘OK, this guy is really serious.’ Based on his history, based on what we’d heard of him and based on the first couple practices we had, we were like, ‘OK, we need to follow this guy.’ “
Much like in Seattle, Wilson’s focus was football. He approached it with the same obsessive focus to preparation. Ball had no humorous anecdotes about Wilson.
“Most of the time, he was just a robot,” Ball said. “He was straight to business. He would joke around some. But he was very focused. He knew what he wanted.”
That mindset wasn’t adapted just for that one year at Wisconsin. It was readily apparent during his three years with NC State, where he led the offense and Irving anchored the defense.
“You never saw Russell out at night anywhere,” Irving said. “You ask what he was doing and he was at home studying or at the facility looking at film. He was always mature.”
On the field, Wilson was productive. As a junior, he threw for 3,563 yards and 28 touchdowns with 14 interceptions, while leading the Wolfpack to a 9-4 record and a win in the Champs Sports Bowl.
It still irks Irving to think what might have been had Wilson not left. Coach Tom O’Brien took issue with Wilson playing baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization during the summer.
O’Brien wanted more of a commitment from Wilson. Instead, Wilson was granted his release from his scholarship and left school.
“I was mad,” Irving said. “I didn’t want him to leave. He had to do what he had to.”
Irving wasn’t surprised to see Wilson have success at Wisconsin and then prove doubters wrong in the NFL.
“Height? It’s about making plays,” Irving said. “He made a lot of plays in college. He’s making a lot of plays now. He knows how to stay alive and extend plays and make you pay. You are seeing that.”
Wilson’s stellar play has caught the attention of more than just his former teammates. Broncos players are well aware how dangerous he can be.
“Each week he is getting better and better and better,” said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. “He has gotten better in the playoffs and I think he does a good job of not turning the ball over. He has a good touchdown-to-interception ratio and he does a good job of extending plays. I think that’s why he doesn’t turn the ball over because he has the ability to beat you with his feet if he doesn’t have the throw there that he wants.”
Both Ball and Irving said they’ll be excited to see their old teammate — postgame.
“For 60 minutes, he won’t be my friend,” Irving said. “He’ll be the enemy.”