TAMPA — Mazzi Wilkins had a shovel in his hands and was helping to build a beach at a new hotel and resort on Treasure Island for a landscaping company a couple weeks ago when his life changed.
He had taken the temporary job, which paid $100 for 10 hours of work in the searing sun, so he could be free to pursue his dream of chasing receivers in the NFL.
“It was real hard work,’’ Wilkins said. “But it gave me something to do because I didn’t want to commit to a full-time job because I knew I was still chasing ball.’’
The first two calls came from his agent, asking if he was in shape to potentially work out the next day for the Bucs.
The last call was from Shelton Quarles, the team’s director of football operations, who wanted him to leave the job site immediately and consent to a private workout in a few hours at the Bucs’ AdventHealth Training Center.
Once again, Wilkins had to dig deep.
“I was so tired when I came here,’’ Wilkins said. “It was like 2:30 in the afternoon. I’d been working since 7 that morning. I came here and it was like, ‘Do what you can do.’ I was the only one in the workout and they said, ‘Go at your own pace.’ But I’m trying to show them that I’d been working out. By the end of the workout, I was dead tired. I did well enough where they signed me and the rest is history.’’
Undrafted out of South Florida, Wilkins has always been a player whose road to success was unpaved.
The former Plant High star decided to remain in his hometown to play collegiately but didn’t really get on the field until his junior year. He finished with 109 career tackles and three interceptions.
He was a late addition to the East-West Shrine Bowl in St. Petersburg but still managed to record an interception.
“USF was not an easy journey,'' Wilkins said. "Twenty tackles as a redshirt freshman. Special teams alone. Punt and kickoff.
“I thought I was the best corner on the team as a freshman. But I had adversity. I was still young-minded. I had to grow up. I never took them all as like a setback or that I can’t come back from it. I just learned from it and I put it in my toolbox.
"I felt like that obstacle my freshman year in college, that was me growing up as a man mentally. Then I got hurt. Learn how to take care of your body. Then it was just like getting ready for the NFL, maximize your opportunity. Make the play when it’s time to make the play. You only get one chance at it.’’
Wilkins did just that. In his first practice with the Bucs, he intercepted Jameis Winston.
“I felt like I shocked a lot of people,’’ Wilkins said. "I felt picking off Jamies the first day, they probably thought, ‘Aw that was just beginner’s luck. A fluke.’ Then I got the next pick. After I got the pick last Monday, I knew I was on a roll. I felt it. I felt the game slowing down and me grasping the playbook a little more from there.’’
Until now, Wilkins’ career may have best been known for his legal hit on McKenzie Milton last Nov. 23 that resulted in a career-jeopardizing right knee injury to the UCF quarterback. Wilkins received death threats after the incident. Milton is well on his way to recovery and the two actually bonded at a Better Man Event (BME) on UCF’s campus.
The NFL showed little interest because Wilkins is undersized at 6-0, 179-pounds. Although he has long arms, he runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.62 range.
Consequently, he was bypassed in the NFL draft. He participated in two tryout camps with the Bucs but neither resulted in a contract.
“I’m already undersized,’’ Wilkins said. “I mean, I got the height. I got the length. I got the quickness. But they said my 40 time wasn’t good enough. My weight, I’m not strong enough.’ But I know when it comes to football, I’m a football player. It’s a mindset. When it comes to the game, it’s either him or me.’’
On Friday, with the Bucs trailing Pittsburgh 30-22 late in the fourth quarter, it was Wilkins who forced a fumble by Steelers tight end Kevin Radar that was recovered by safety Isaiah Johnson at the Tampa Bay 36-yard line with 2:21 remaining.
From there, Bucs quarterback Ryan Griffin directed a 64-yard drive capped by Dare Ogunbowale’s 1-yard scoring run with 10 seconds left in the game. The two-point conversion pass failed, but Wilkins’ effort stood out.
“It was like we’re down, we’d needed them turnovers,’’ Wilkins said. “And I told them boys, we needed it and I had to put it in my own hands.’’
Wilkins had nearly intercepted a pass earlier in the game but was unable to hold on. “Of course, that one kind of hurt my feelings. I just knew I was going to get a pick this game,’’ Wilkins said.
Those plays didn’t surprise Bucs cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross, who was a seventh-round pick of the Chiefs in 1984 but played 14 seasons in the NFL.
“Courage, execution, toughness,’’ Ross said describing Wilkins. “Little guy. Reminds me of myself a little bit. No fear. He’s doing well.’’
While second-round pick Sean Murphy-Bunting, a rookie from Central Michigan, failed to make any plays in Friday’s game, prompting Arians to ask, “Did you play?’ Wilkins walked out of Heinz Field clutching a game ball from his forced fumble.
“Yeah, football players. It’s just football players,’’ Arians said. “They’re not those shorts guys and you always look for those. I know in the past, we’ve had two or three make our team and make major roles.’’
Wilkins still has plenty to prove to the Bucs in the final three preseason games. He will get some extra chances during the Bucs’ joint practices with the Miami Dolphins today and Wednesday. Finding a role on special teams will be critical to earn a roster spot. But Wilkins has proven he’s willing to get his hands dirty.
“I mean, I always had confidence in myself,’’ Wilkins said. “That’s why I was so down I didn’t make in the NFL to get drafted in the first place. It was really just a chip on my shoulder and it’s got to be on my shoulder for the rest of my career because I’ve got to prove every play, every snap of every game.’’