In the winter of 2012 as they prepared in Florida for the draft, Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman would compete against Russell Wilson during the day, then go to his room at night and listen to draft experts say the 5-foot-11-inch tall quarterback was too small to succeed in the NFL.
Norman wasn’t buying it then, and he’s certainly not now.
During drills at the sprawling IMG Academy campus in Bradenton, Fla., where Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly also trained, Norman would try to keep up with receivers while Wilson bought time in the pocket and zipped on-target passes downfield.
“I knew he was going to be something special. I knew he was going to be great – just the throws and the velocity and accuracy he had,” Norman said this week. “He was able to scramble around and make plays back then. Now you can see that translate into actual NFL games. It wasn’t a surprise to me when that happened.”
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In his third season with Seattle, the accolades and accomplishments are piling up for Wilson, who last season joined Kurt Warner, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger as the only quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl in their first or second seasons.
Wilson’s 27 regular-season wins are the most by a quarterback through his first 38 games, and he’s the only player in NFL history to post passer ratings of 100 or higher in each of first two seasons.
Not bad for a former minor-league baseball player who was viewed as a late-round pick by most draft gurus and scouts.
Wilson, the former N.C. State standout who finished his college career at Wisconsin, will return to Charlotte on Sunday when the Seahawks (3-3) visit the Panthers (3-3-1) for the third year in a row.
Wilson is 2-0 against Carolina after a pair of close, low-scoring games. The Panthers intercepted Wilson twice in 2012, but he torched them for 320 yards last season in the Seahawks’ 12-7 victory.
Wilson made NFL history last week in a 28-26 loss at St. Louis, becoming the first player to pass for 300 yards and run for 100 yards. It was the second 100-yard rushing effort this season for Wilson, who hit the century mark once during his first two seasons.
Defensive end Wes Horton said the Panthers have to make Wilson pay a price when he leaves the pocket.
“He’s pretty much like a running back back there with the way he can scramble. So we’ve just got to plaster him and, in some cases, take a shot,” Horton said. “If you see him in space, you run full speed at him, get your hands on him and try to take him down.”
That might be easier said than done.
Wilson has shown a knack for escaping pass-rushers with his pump fakes, which are often followed by a spin out of the pocket. Panthers coach Ron Rivera and Horton said the key will be for defensive linemen to keep charging at Wilson.
“The biggest thing we’re taught is not to jump or not to leave our feet,” Horton said, adding that containing Wilson will be critical, as well.
“Once he rolls out, it’s important to get to that upfield shoulder. Even if you get (there) and he steps inside, at least you’re forcing him back to other players. If you go for his inside shoulder and he gets outside, that’s going to be a long run.”
The Panthers were among the teams with established quarterbacks that viewed Wilson as a late-round prospect who could be used situationally while he developed. In addition to Carolina, Wilson said he also talked to Green Bay, San Diego and New Orleans. All those teams had their starting quarterbacks set.
“To learn from a guy like Drew Brees would’ve been a great thing. ... But for me I just trusted in the process,” Wilson said this week during a conference call. “I had been through two baseball drafts in high school and college, and I knew that it was one of those things where you can’t necessarily hope to get picked in a certain spot and then it happens.
“I was prepared to go wherever, but I just believed that where I was selected I was going to make 31 other teams regret it.”
Wilson transferred to Wisconsin for his final season when then-Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien insisted Wilson participate in spring practices rather than play baseball in the Colorado Rockies farm system.
Wilson’s combine bio on NFL.com included the following under the “weaknesses” heading: “Wilson’s height will be his biggest inhibitor at the next level and the largest reason for his late-round value. It remains to be seen if he can throw effectively from the pocket at the next level.”
The Seahawks took Wilson in the third round with the 75th overall pick. Six quarterbacks were drafted ahead of him, including Brandon Weeden and second-rounder Brock Osweiler, the 6-8, 240-pounder who is Peyton Manning’s backup in Denver.
“I remember the Panthers talking to me ... in terms of trying to bring me in. Obviously I wanted to play, I believed that my height didn’t define my skill set. I was just 5-11 but I could play the game of football,” Wilson said. “It’s worked out well for me.”
Norman isn’t surprised. But the Panthers’ third-year corner is ready to exact some revenge on his former training buddy.
“He evaded us the past couple times,” Norman said. “But he’s a great quarterback. You’ve got to give him his props.”