DII football: Northwest Missouri State's Clayton Wilson becoming versatile tight end
MARYVILLE, Mo. - Four minutes into the third quarter in Northwest Missouri State's season opener, a few teammates probably figured they needed to come up with a new way to describe the football moves of senior tight end Clayton Wilson.
Wilson caught a pass from quarterback Zach Martin, and as he darted down the sideline, he saw an Emporia State defender lower his shoulder. Wilson leaped over him and made it to the one before getting pushed out of bounds just short of the end zone.
"It was an unbelievable move," Northwest offensive coordinator Charlie Flohr said. "Clayton Wilson has always been a very athletic player. Once he gets the ball in space, he is lightning in a bottle. He displayed it on that catch and just about scored a touchdown."
One of the best aspects of a tight-knit team is the teasing that occurs between players without it being personal. Wilson hears from his teammates that he prefers contact intact instead of making a move to avoid it.
"All my friends give me a bad time," Wilson said. "I am 'No-Moves Wilson.' That was an opportunity that I saw I could finally make a move."
It was a winning football play. Northwest led 13-0 at the time, but the offense had yet to score a touchdown. Wilson put Northwest in position for its first offensive touchdown of the season. They scored and went on to win 34-0.
For Northwest, it is never about who scores or who gets the yards.
"As long as somebody is out there making plays, we want to give them the ball because they have a hot hand," Wilson said. "We don't care who is making the plays as long as somebody is out there making them."
Northwest, 1-0 and ranked No. 1 in the AFCA top 25, will take this same mentality to Washburn when it takes on the Ichabods, 1-0, 6 p.m. Thursday.
"With this being our first road game, it is going to take everything we have," Wilson said. "They are physical and big on both sides of the ball. We will have to dig down and win the battle in the trenches."
Through the years, Wilson has learned the lessons to be successful from seniors before him. His journey is different from those who come from a bigger school in larger cities.
Wilson is from Tabor, Iowa, a town 90 minutes from Maryville. The population is about a thousand people.
Fremont-Hills High School is so small that Wilson played 8-man football. But word travels when there is a good athlete in small town, Flohr said. Northwest heard about him. They saw him in a few summer football camps and followed him his junior and senior years in high school.
"He is a special kid," Flohr said. "We are happy to have him."
But it was going to take a few years before Wilson was going to contribute in games. Wilson understood it.
"That is how it is," Wilson said. "This is an outstanding program, and it has been for quite a few years now. Coming in, you have to know the people ahead of you are doing stuff right. It is awesome to redshirt and go behind them. They are willing to teach you. I had terrific people to learn from.
"Being a senior this year, I am doing the same thing with the underclassmen, getting them in the film room and working with them on their fundamentals."
When recruiting football players, Northwest coaching staff look deeper than the physical measurables on the football field.
"We want people who have a high drive and are intrinsically motivated because if you are not, you will not make it here," Northwest head coach Rich Wright said. "Most of our kids don't play right away. It takes time to develop and be able to play at the speed we want him to play. He has to have some toughness and mental fortitude to come to the field every day and make the physical investment and not see immediate dividends. It is a credit to them and that inner drive from within."
Sure, Wilson, at 6-foot-4, 240-pounds, has the physical gifts to make the athletic play that electrified the 8,055 fans at Bearcat Stadium last Thursday. But that play was made through years of hitting the weight room, watching film and being prepared to make a play when his number was called.
Wilson credits Flohr for taking the time to go over any play or situation with him in practice. Sometimes after the official practice has ended, Wilson will ask Flohr about a certain play. Flohr will not only work with Wilson; he will bring over a couple of defenders for Wilson to help illustrate the way to approach a certain play.
In return, Flohr likes that Wilson is diligent to work on those things to improve. The result is Wilson is more of an all-around tight end than he was three years ago.
"He improved his blocking," Flohr said. "A couple of years ago, he was strictly an off-the-ball tight end. Over the last couple of years, he has dedicated his game in the offseason to become a better blocking tight end. He was able to do that last season and moving forward. He put in a lot of time and effort to fine tune the blocking aspect of a tight end. He is getting better and better every day."
The Bearcats understand three national titles in the last four years, and a 31-game winning streak isn't going to win them the game at Washburn.
"Washburn is historically a physical football program," Wright said. "They have a bunch of big kids. They are going to run the ball downhill and attack. They are not going to be shock and awe of Northwest Missouri State. They are going to give us their best shot."
Improving individually and as a team is key to remaining successful. The Bearcats know they didn't play a perfect game in their win over No. 4 Emporia State.
"We made a ton of mistakes," Wright said. "We felt we left some points on the field. Everybody was lauding over the shutout, but we made a ton of mistakes defensively. We have a bunch of things we can correct.
"On the flip side, you look at the attitude and intensity, and the energy and those things were all there. The things we have to fix are assignment-type stuff, and those are the things that are a lot more fun to fix because they are correctable. When you have physical mistakes and guys not caring, that makes things more difficult."
One thing the Northwest coaching staff don't have to worry about is caring. The senior class wants to leave a legacy that emulates the senior classes before them.
"We are all together," Wilson said. "We are a family. We are always around each other. We are helping the younger guys as much as we can, giving them the knowledge we learned over the years. Everyone is trying to be a leader, which is great. We are even taking notes from the young guys because sometimes the young guys have things that have worked well for them."
Wilson knows the benefits of working hard and listening. Off the football field, Wilson will graduate in the spring with a degree in corporate recreation and wellness. He plans to go to graduate school for strength and conditioning.
"This experience has been one of the best of my life," Wilson said. "Being around the kind of guys I have been around these past few years is just awesome. Everyone is treated like family. Everyone watches out for each other. It is just unbelievable."