'A king in every room': How Russell Wilson is already taking command of Broncos, wowing teammates
The nine-time Pro Bowl QB's resume speaks for itself. But Russell Wilson isn't resting on his laurels when it comes to swaying his new teammates.
DENVER – Long before Russell Wilson arrived in Denver as the Broncos’ new star quarterback, before he won a Super Bowl in Seattle or earned the starting quarterback job as a 2012 third-round rookie, he was the new guy at the University of Wisconsin.
Wilson arrived on campus in Madison just a couple of weeks ahead of preseason camp after an accomplished career at North Carolina State – he accounted for 37 total touchdowns the year before and overall threw for 8,545 yards (57.6% completions) and 76 touchdowns against 26 interceptions over three seasons – but at the time also a bit of a rarity as a quarterback transfer.
With only a matter of weeks before the Badgers opened their season against Fresno State, part of Wilson’s challenge, in addition to picking up the playbook and figuring out the nuts and bolts of life at a new school, was to make a quick impression on his new teammates.
So he threw a football against a pipe.
More than a decade later, Wilson is the new guy again, this time with the Denver Broncos, after a March trade delivered him to a playoff-starved franchise hoping that a star quarterback fills out an otherwise quality roster and opens a long window of championship contention.
Nine Pro Bowl appearances, 158 NFL starts and a world championship means everybody in the Broncos’ facility knows more about the 33-year-old’s resume than those in Madison did in 2011, but Wilson himself said recently that he’s drawn from experience as far back as his collegiate days as he sets about not only settling in with a new franchise, but putting his fingerprints on it, too.
“The cool part about being able to almost start all over again is you’re able to learn from your experiences and what’s gone really, really, really, really well and from your experiences of, ‘What could we have done better? What could I have done better?’” Wilson said. “And then also, too, the opportunity to just continue to learn. Every day I wake up, that’s what I’m obsessed with is the ability to learn, keep growing, keep building and stacking the chips, in a way.”
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NFL OFFSEASON WINNERS, LOSERS:Where do Wilson, Broncos stand?
‘A little folklore’
Bret Bielema laughs quite a bit when recounting old Russell Wilson stories.
Now the head coach at Illinois, Bielema recruited Wilson to Wisconsin in 2011 and, with the help of then-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst (now the head man in Madison), landed the quarterback over Auburn – which, Bielema intimated, had pitched Wilson on being the next Cam Newton.
Instead, he arrived on campus in July and, Bielema recalls, challenged a few guys to a game of “crossbar” on the field at Camp Randall Stadium.
“And they started on whatever yard line, and he proceeded to back up every five yards and throw the ball and hit the crossbar in the back of the end zone, which a lot of us can’t do from the 4-yard line, let alone the 40,” Bielema said. “He kind of just built a little folklore around him in that regard.”
Within a month, Wilson was named one of Wisconsin’s captains. A year later, Wilson showed up and won a job again, this time as a rookie in the NFL when he beat out newly signed quarterback Matt Flynn for the starting job in Seattle despite a widespread assumption he’d begin his career down the depth chart. According to a 2013 ESPN story, Wilson was typing up goals and giving them to Seattle coaches, taping them in his locker and talking about winning multiple Super Bowls before he ever won the starting job.
There’s no quarterback competition in Denver, of course, though the opening three months of Wilson’s tenure have been rejuvenating nonetheless. This spring at the team's Englewood headquarters, it's not uncommon hear comparisons to 2012, when Peyton Manning signed with the franchise as a free agent.
“There was a complete wave shift when Peyton walked into the building and he came in,” Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton said recently. “Everyone talks about how it was and how Peyton came in and the standard got set to a different level. Obviously, I wasn’t here when Peyton was here, but I was able to hear it from Emmanuel (Sanders) and (Demaryius Thomas), and they raved about it. Emmanuel would tell me Peyton would come in, he’d wear his pants, shirt tucked in, everything was to a ‘T.' He had a mission, and he knew what he was coming here to do.
“It’s a very similar thing that Russ does. Russ comes in and he has an agenda of what he’s getting done that day. He’s coming in, he’s going to push himself and everybody around him to maximize what we can bring to the table. Anybody that remotely wants to get better will feed off of that and love to be around that.”
Down to the details
Actually winning football games and earning real, bona fide respect, of course, isn’t borne fully out of Dude Perfect-esque exploits, taping goals in your locker or tucking in your shirt.
In Denver, teammates have expressed a common refrain about the work their new quarterback puts in.
“He always has something to add on to just kind of help our offensive players evolve and adapt,” tight end Albert Okwuegbunam said. “It could be just a little detail about protection, it could be a little detail about coverage and what we might do if we see this look. I think that’s one thing directly on the field that he’s been doing a good job of.”
Added offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz, “When he’s talking, we’re listening and we’re listening to every single detail because we’re all trying to be the best and that’s the goal here.”
That sounded familiar to Peter Konz, a former All-American offensive lineman at Wisconsin who was picked a round ahead of Wilson in the 2012 draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Konz started at center for 11 of Wilson's 14 games at Wisconsin, meaning he as much as anybody in the program had to get up to speed with Wilson right away.
“The way he works hard is different than other people," Konz said. "It’s easy to just say, you’re not running the route right or you should have had that block, but to actually discuss ways of getting better and not allow an ego to get in the way of it is huge.”
Searching for a specific example, Konz settled on the natural connecting point for centers and quarterbacks: His butt.
“I’ve had quarterbacks where, they want to put their hands on you and to put as much pressure (as they can) on you,” Konz said. “I’ve fallen over or false started because I’ve had quarterbacks basically push my ass up in the air and I’m falling down, and I’ve had guys who aren’t willing to work with me on what that means. I’m a 6-foot-6 center, so you don’t have to lift me up at all – I’m already pretty high compared to a lot of interior guys. Russell was willing to work on it and say, ‘Hey, where do you want my hands? How much pressure do you like?’ When I’m in the shotgun, he’d tell me, ‘Here’s where I want the ball. If it’s a read option, here’s where we want it placed.’ It was just those little details and the ability to work with people."
As Wisconsin prepared to go to Soldier Field for a non-conference game that September, Bielema said he kept catching Wilson looking at an empty corner of the end zone from under center during practice.
“He’d come by after practice to watch film, and he’d stop by my office and grab a piece of bubble gum, and I’m like, ‘Hey, man, what were you doing every day? I saw your eyes going to that empty spot.’ He said, ‘Well, coach, I looked up the stadium, and I was visualizing where the 40-second clock was, so I was training my eyes to go there,’” Bielema said.
“I’m just like, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew that’s what you were doing. I’m glad I thought of that.’”
Now the Broncos offensive players are getting the full blast from Wilson through the first two phases of offseason workouts and into OTAs, except he has 10 years of starting experience at the highest level under his belt added to the equation.
“I think that’s the thing that allows us to be able to gain that connection with him,” Sutton said. “He’s prepping, but he’s also bringing us along with the prep. He’ll say, ‘Hey, what do you guys have going on right now? Come up and watch this,’ whatever it may be, it’ll be real quick, so I can see what he sees. I can explain to him what I may see in that, and then boom, we’re on the same page.”
‘A king in every room’
This time around, Wilson is new in proximity only.
Cornerback Ronald Darby is one of many on the roster who has played against him.
This spring, however, he’s getting his first up-close look. Darby said he “surprisingly” spotted Wilson and head coach Nathaniel Hackett standing in the back of a defense-only portion of a voluntary offseason workout a few weeks back.
“Like, he didn’t have to be there, but he was sitting back there with the head coach and they both were just watching. He likes to pick up on everything,” Darby said.
Darby smiled as he noted that Wilson walks around in his game pants long before practice starts, a habit that a few others seem to have picked up recently, too. Sutton said his quarterback "bleeds football."
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect,” Sutton said. “I knew that Russ was an amazing football player. What Russ does on the football field is, you know, special to him. But the preparation, unless you’re around it, you don’t really understand. Being able to be around him and understand how he has been able to have the success that he’s had and to be a Super Bowl winner, it doesn’t happen by luck.”
Perhaps this as much as anything is what makes Denver interesting this fall. Wilson and a mostly new coaching staff are tasked with trying to get the Broncos back into contention, doing so right away and in perhaps the toughest division in football.
Year 1s, though, have been a Wilson strong suit. The 2011 Badgers set school offensive records, finished 11-3 and ranked near the top of the country in scoring (sixth, 44.1 points per game) and yards per play (fifth, 7.0). The 2012 Seahawks went 11-5 and won a wild-card game before bowing out in the divisional round with their rookie quarterback.
He’s not the only reason those teams had success, nor is he alone in Denver, which returns the core of a solid defense and an intriguing set of offensive skill talent. He will undoubtedly, though, be the focal point for the Broncos this fall and likely for as long as he continues playing.
Wilson 11 years ago was talking with Bielema during their short stint together when he imparted a message that stuck with the veteran coach over the years.
“There’s a king in every room,” Bielema said. “Russ really takes that to the highest level. He knew walking in that the expectation level that he wanted to set was from a leadership standpoint that would make others believe in him and follow, but not just follow blindly.
“They had to believe in him first, and that’s what he just has an uncanny ability to do and that really transcends the game of football.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Parker Gabriel on Twitter @ParkerJGabriel.