Tre Wilson was 10 or 11 when his dad sat him down for a talk. After eight seasons as an NFL defensive back and a pair of Super Bowl rings with Tom Brady and the Patriots, his dad, Eugene Wilson II, knew what it took to get to that level.
If Tre wanted to be all-in on football, his dad would help him — but he’d have to work more than anybody else without making excuses.
“He pretty much stuck to the regimen,” his dad said.
That regimen has helped Eugene Wilson III — Tre, as he’s called around the Florida Gators’ Heavener Football Training Center — turn into a freshman All-American and one of the biggest reasons for optimism in Gainesville about this season and beyond.
The work started years before that talk. His dad remembers the 4-year-old boy taking a break from watching one of his older brother’s games to race against another kid — and diving across the imaginary finish line to win it. He began training with his dad at age 8 or 9, joining him for runs and squats. His dad eventually settled in Tampa after spending the 2008 offseason with the Bucs. Wilson later moved down, too, in part to compete in a football hotspot.
“He had it all, basically,” said David Saunders, who coached Wilson in youth ball with the Citrus Park Bills and as an assistant at Gaither High. “He wasn’t scared to get better.”
Wilson’s size, speed and pedigree helped him gravitate toward defensive back at first. He worked out with his dad at the park near their Westchase neighborhood, one covering the other. Wilson still talks about the time he made his dad slip and fall while trying to defend him on a slant. He sent that video to the whole family.
Wilson remained at defensive back at the start of his high school career; Gaither had an experienced group of receivers (including Jordan Oladokun and Josh Smith, now at Bowling Green and North Texas) but needed help in the secondary.
“That’s where I wanted to get recruited at,” Wilson said.
That’s not what happened.
As Wilson spent weekends working with Saunders — a former receiver for West Virginia and the Tampa Bay Storm — he started to look more like a receiver. He became less of a runner and more of a route runner. He stopped sprinting so fast he’d trip over himself and learned how to control his blazing speed. He loved the fact that this new position didn’t come as easily to him as defensive back did.
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“It got to a point where I actually enjoyed playing receiver more because I was so new to it,” Wilson said. “I was learning so much.”
It started to pay off that fall with a breakout junior season (62 catches, 925 yards). College offers flowed the next spring, and the top-110 national recruit committed to Florida to try to rebuild the Gators into a powerhouse.
He made an immediate impact. Coach Billy Napier said the Gators’ game plans had to make intentional pushes to give him the chance to make a big play, in part because of his “unique acceleration.”
Wilson finished with six touchdown catches and 538 receiving yards. His 6.1 receptions per game were the most of any true freshman in the country, and he led the Gators in catches in four of their last five games. Not bad for his third true season at the position.
Wilson has begun to figure out how to use his relative inexperience to his advantage, thanks in part to continued film sessions with his father.
“My whole life as a DB, you read a receiver’s position, and you react off his position,” Wilson said. “But halfway through the season, I kind of discovered that you can read a DB’s position and pretty much play chess matches with him …”
One of those chess matches came against Arkansas. He read the defensive back’s position and reacted off it with a cut that sprung the first of his two touchdowns.
Wilson’s next steps include adding more mass on his 5-foot-10 frame. He played at 170 pounds last season and wants to be above 180 by the start of spring practice. His techniques can continue to be refined, too. But he appears to be on the right track. His dad knew that the day he dropped him off at campus.
When the two talked that night, Wilson said he was settling in nicely — and even made enough time to go for a run.
“I was so proud of him,” Eugene Wilson II said. “I didn’t have to tell him to do this.”
Even when his dad wasn’t around, he was still sticking to the regimen.
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