Shaun Wilson keeps hearing he’s too small. He’s making a big impression on the Bucs

Shaun Wilson (38) runs the ball during Bucs practice Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 in Tampa. CHRIS URSO   |   Times
Shaun Wilson (38) runs the ball during Bucs practice Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 in Tampa. CHRIS URSO | Times
Published August 3 2018
Updated August 4 2018

TAMPA — At 5 feet 9, 185 pounds, Shaun Wilson has never been short on talent.

Although the undrafted rookie running back never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season at Duke, small backs have made big gains in the NFL before.

"He's small in height, but he's got really good quickness,'' said Bucs coach Dirk Koetter. "Really good vision. He can burst and he's smart. There's been plenty of short in stature running backs have success in the NFL. I think he's somewhere between 185 and 190 weight wise. He's got some leverage when he tries to run with power and he can make guys miss.

"He's been an impressive guy and it will be real interesting to see him go live against Miami next week and he'll get some chances.''

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A chance is all Wilson has ever needed.

At Duke, Wilson made most of his big plays in the kick return game. He's had kickoff returns of 98 yards (2015), 76 yards (2016) and 76 yards.

Of course, Wilson isn't even the best running back in his own Bucs draft class. That distinction belongs to Ronald Jones, the second round pick from Southern Cal. That doesn't bother Wilson, it only makes the challenge tougher.

Wilson has made a big impression on the Bucs. Right now, he would be mired on a depth chart behind Jones, veteran Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims. But few running backs have his burst and the Bucs are looking for explosive plays in the running game. A year ago, the Bucs averaged 3.7 yards per carry.

Barber and Jones figure to get the most touches this season. Wilson says he has to "get in where he can fit in."

"For one thing, he has a chip on his shoulder which is good for us,'' Bucs running back coach Tim Spencer said. "He's always been told he's too small and he'll never be able to make it. So he's got that fight in him."

Wilson says he doesn't pay attention to what is said about him. He appears to be a very serious guy who rarely cracks a smile. Some coaches have compared Wilson's demeanor to that last year of receiver Chris Godwin, who seemed mature beyond his years.

"You can say I'm underrated and things like that,'' Wilson said. "But everybody's story is different. I'm just working on my story. Working on my rout and trying to be the best I can be. I'm not worried about anybody else.

"I don't get into all that. I just have a narrow focus, eliminate all the distractions and focus on the task at hand.  Like I said, I'm not for highs and lows. If I have a bad play, I just go on to the next play. Just trying to be where my feet are.''

Whether Wilson's feet can fill the shoes of Sims or Rodgers will depend on how he plays in preseason games. In addition to working as a kickoff returner, he would have to eventually morph into a third-down back.

Typically learning the blitz pickup and protections is the hardest thing for a first-year player.

"Obviously, in terms of being a big blocker, we can work on some technique things,'' Spencer said. "He's willing to do it and that's three quarters of the battle.

"He's been coached, so he knows football. For him, it was just a matter of terminology change.''

Koetter and the Bucs coaching staff appear smitten with Wilson. Sims was among the last free agents to resign with the Bucs. Rodgers is 28, still young by league standards.

Barber and Jones appear to be locks. Where does this leave Wilson? After only little more than a week of training camp, he looks as if he belongs in the NFL.

"Mature as a football player for sure,'' Koetter said of Wilson. "I don't know him well enough off the field. He's a guy who doesn't say much in the meetings, but he also doesn't make very many mistakes on the field. For anybody not getting a lot of reps, half the battle is not making mistakes when you're in there and he doesn't make them.''

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud