Of the 24 players in Tulane’s 2014 football signing class, Sean Wilson appeared one of the least likely to make an impact as a freshman.
He was a two-star recruit who lined up at middle linebacker for South Plaquemines High in his senior year, and he was being asked to move to tackle, a new position for him.
So much for conventional wisdom.
On Halloween night against Cincinnati (4-3, 2-1 American Athletic), Wilson will be Tulane’s only true freshman starter on defense. His ascension to first-team nose tackle in mid-October coincided with the Green Wave’s best two defensive performances of the season.
Tulane (2-5, 1-2) held Connecticut to a field goal in a 12-3 victory at Yulman Stadium on Oct. 11, then limited Central Florida to 233 yards in a 20-13 loss a week later.
“(Wilson) was the steal of the draft,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “He’s playing better than any other freshman. He’s physical, he’s fast and he’s quick. He’s already one of the better players in our league.”
That’s heady praise for a guy almost no one had heard of entering September. Wilson set the tone with a sack on his first series against UConn and followed up with five tackles against UCF, including a play where he ran down running back William Stanback from behind and stuffed him for no gain.
“The last two weeks, I played my better games,” Wilson said. “I had my bad games, but the last game was probably my best. I hustle. I could get blocked, but if the ball is going down the field, I’m going to chase it.”
His five stops against UCF tied Tanzel Smart for the second-most tackles by a Tulane interior lineman in any game this year. The tackle with the most tackles? Wilson again, with six off the bench against Duke.
His 19 tackles for the season are only three fewer than the total for the more heralded Smart, who has started all seven games, and seven more than the number for Corey Redwine, who started five times before losing his spot to Wilson.
Chris Davenport, the LSU transfer who stabilized the middle of Tulane’s defense as a graduate student last year, finished with 20 tackles in 12 games.
Wilson is soft-spoken, but the praise he gets from the people around him speaks volumes.
“He reminds me of Ryan Grant,” said junior safety Darion Monroe, referencing the two-time 1,000-yard receiver and 2014 fifth-round NFL draft pick who has played in all eight games for Washington this season. “He really doesn’t say too much, but when you get on the field, you know he produces. He plays with leverage and uses his hands real well. To be that young and know these things already, he’s going to be really good when he gets older.”
The coaches always expected to move Wilson inside. He arrived in the summer weighing about 280 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, making him too large to play anywhere else.
The normal progress for someone making a radical position shift is a redshirt year with emphasis on weightlifting and learning. Wilson, who said he was down to 270 pounds, turned out to be abnormal.
“The switch really didn’t bother me,” he said. “I kind of knew it was going to happen. I love football no matter where I play. I’m just listening to my coaches and doing what they say and watched film on how the older guys do it and am trying to play like they do.”
The Wave needs him to be at his best against Cincinnati, which ranks third in the AAC in scoring (34.3 points per game). The Bearcats gained more than 400 yards in losses at Ohio State and Miami and are coming off a 590-yard outburst against South Florida even though starting quarterback Gunner Kiel left with bruised ribs in the first half.
Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said Kiel probably would start against Tulane, but Cincinnati fared well with former Karr standout Munchie Legaux against USF.
The Bearcats, who also got 212 rushing yards from freshman Mike Boone, are much more dangerous offensively than UCF or Connecticut. Conversely, they rank near the bottom of the league in almost every defensive category, but Johnson does not like Tulane’s chances in a shootout.
He wants a lower-scoring game with Wilson and his linemates holding their own up front.
“Ever since we inserted Wilson into the starting lineup, it’s been a new defensive line,” Johnson said. “We need to continue to play good defense. I just want to play a complementary game. It’s going to take offense, defense and special teams to play well with this opponent.”