New England Patriots

  • Mack Wilson

    FOXBOROUGH, MA – JULY 28: New England Patriots linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. (30) during New England Patriots training camp on July 28, 2022, at the Patriots Training Facility at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    When the Patriots acquired Mack Wilson from Cleveland, they got a linebacker who can run. They also got a potential emergency long snapper, punter and fullback.

    One of Mack Wilson’s last acts in his first week of Patriots training camp was a play on the ball, though probably not the kind you imagined him making when he was acquired in March.

    Wilson came here from Cleveland in a trade for Chase Winovich. In swapping 2019 draft picks in the final year of rookie contracts, the Pats gave up a 260-pound outside linebacker best at going forward to get a 230-pounder better suited to match speed in space.

    They also got something else, as witnessed as early as last Thursday’s practice and again late Saturday morning, when Wilson turned the field upside down. Standing eight yards in front of Mac Jones, who dropped to a knee, he bent forward, reached down with both hands and fired the ball backward.

    Voila: the Pats, it appears, not only have their backup holder — Jones held at Alabama — they’ve identified an emergency long snapper. It’s a role Wilson had in college — also for the Crimson Tide — and continued to occupy behind Charlie Hughlett in Cleveland.

    Wilson picked up the skill at Carver High in Montgomery, Ala., because “nobody (else) could do it.” After joining the Patriots, he informed special teams coordinator Cam Achord of his long-snapping history.

    “He didn’t believe me,” Wilson said, “but I showed him I could do it.”

    For now. In practices.

    “You know how they make that face, like ‘Pretty good,’” an expressive Wilson said of the coaches’ initial, unspoken assessment. “But they (were) like, ‘What are you going to do if you got to do it in a game?’ Obviously when we’re just doing it out here, it’s totally different than doing it in a game.”

    As others know too well. Among them, anyone who remembers seeing Pittsburgh’s James Harrison try to do it against the Giants in 2008. Wildly entertaining for non-Steelers partisans, Harrison’s wayward snaps contributed to a loss (he later made amends with his 100-yard interception return in a Super Bowl XLIII).

    Fortunately for the Patriots, they’ve had relievers who answered calls to the bullpen and threw strikes.

    In 1985, after Guy Morriss was ejected vs. Detroit, Ron Wooten snapped well enough for Tony Franklin to convert three field goals and two extra points in a 23-6 victory. Twenty-nine years later, Rob Ninkovich spelled injured Danny Aiken and fired eight snaps — four punts, four placements — into the hands of Ryan Allen in a 17-degree windchill at Green Bay.

    Hearing of Ninkovich’s performance, Wilson nodded, smiled and replied.

    “Definitely,” he said. “I’ll be ready if the opportunity ever presents itself.”

  • Aug 22, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns linebacker Mack Wilson (51) against the New York Giants during the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

    (Photo by Scott Galvin/USA TODAY Sports)

    ‘I’m a linebacker’

    Meantime, Wilson focuses mainly on his primary role.

    And all it possibly entails. Playing fast and physical up front. Running with backs in coverage. He’s with a new team, in a new scheme, amid a new age of offense to defend. None of it changes how he sees himself at heart.

    “I’m a linebacker,” Wilson says. “I can do whatever the team needs me to do. I don’t know, I just feel like I can do whatever, honestly.”

    “Mack’s done a good job for us,” head coach Bill Belichick says. “He was really an outstanding worker all spring and learned some different things that we do here. But he’s adapted well.”

    While early, it’s clear Wilson will be counted on heavily in a lighter linebacking group that no longer includes Jamie Collins (255 pounds), Dont’a Hightower (260) and Kyle Van Noy (250). Although his defensive snaps decreased from 944 (88 percent) during a 14-start, 81-tackle rookie season to just 194 (21 percent) in his third year, Wilson’s shown he can hit with the authority of larger predecessors.

    Particularly in two games against the Pats. In the second, last November, Wilson totaled seven tackles, including a 1st-and-goal run-stuff of Rhamondre Stevenson. From the Cleveland 3-yard line, he shot through the middle and, shoulder to shoulder, hammered Stevenson backward.

    There’s also tape of big hits on special teams, dating to Wilson’s freshman season at Alabama. An example gone viral was on a kickoff to Texas A&M’s Speedy Noil in 2016. Returning from the goal line, Noil met Wilson at the 13-yard line and was flattened (both avoided concussions on what the SEC later ruled a clean play).

    No wonder Wilson’s reputation preceded him here.

    “My linebackers know how I feel about physical football,” he said before this week’s first padded practices.

  • Wilson (30) intercepts a pass at LSU in 2018. (Photo by John Korduner/Getty Images)

    ‘Other hidden talents?’

    In the same session before media, the linebacking, long-snapping Wilson was asked if he had other hidden talents.

    “I got a lot of them,” he said, smiling with a shrug. “But I ain’t gonna talk about ‘em though.”

    He wouldn’t. We can.

    For instance, Wilson doesn’t just snap; he kicks. At Alabama, he could be seen before games warming up as a punter in reserve. And last year, when Browns’ punter Jamie Gillan caught COVID-19, Wilson publicly lobbied to take his place (Cleveland instead turned to veteran Dustin Colquitt).

    Whereas Wilson didn’t get a chance to kick in Tuscaloosa or Cleveland, he did play fullback for the Crimson Tide. In fact, he caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts as a freshman vs. Kent State.

    So Wilson’s a linebacker who can long snap, punt, lead bock for a tailback and make acrobatic catches.

    And that’s not all.

    “I mean if you see him on the basketball court,” says Anfernee Jennings, another linebacker out of Alabama, “he can jump out of the gym.

    “(Mack) being who he is, a good athletic dude, he’s fun to be around. He’s just a good teammate.”

     

    Bob Socci enters his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter at @Bob Socci.