Jim Hawkins/Inside Carolina

Four-star LB Payton Wilson Spends Evening with UNC LB Coach Mike Ekeler

The four-star linebacker has altered his decision game plan slightly.

North Carolina's exclusive junior day on Saturday provided four-star linebacker Payton Wilson his first opportunity to hang out with UNC's new linebackers coach, Mike Ekeler.

"I really liked him -- he's a really good guy," Wilson said. "From what I've heard from everybody -- I've talked to Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith -- and they've said he's a technician and he loves it. He's strictly a linebackers coach."

Despite basically living walking distance from UNC's campus, Wilson arrived two hours after the junior day began. Before receiving an invitation to the event, he had committed to attend Clemson's junior day that afternoon. Thus, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder from Hillsborough (N.C.) Orange High attended both. 

Wilson's late arrival ended up working to the benefit of his relationship with Ekeler. Wilson joined the junior day group just after a cornhole tournament began. Therefore while everyone else played cornhole, Ekeler and Wilson chatted over a game of ping pong. Their conversation continued during the UNC-Duke basketball game later that night.

"We were just chit chatting, because it was the first time we meet," Wilson said. "He was just giving me his background and why he chose North Carolina. 

"Coach JP [John Papachuis] said that [Ekeler] loves being a linebackers coach and he only knows linebacker stuff, which is great for me, because that's going to help me out so much if I choose to go there. Even when he was the linebackers coach, Coach JP looked at what the secondary was doing; but Coach Eke, he just looks strictly at what the linebackers are going to be doing."

Speaking of Papchuis, he was recently promoted to defensive coordinator and will strictly oversee the defense (i.e. he won't coach a specific position). That's a great situation for a linebacker to walk into.

"I was pretty excited when I heard about it," Wilson said. "At first, I was kind of shocked, because Coach [Gene] Chizik is a great guy and he was great at what he did. But, then it turned out to be really good, particularly for linebackers."

As a whole, UNC's exclusive junior day was more of a party than a traditional junior day. Instead of tours and meetings, attendees and coaches mingled while enjoying fun activities.

"Honestly, I liked it a little better, because I didn't really feel the whole recruiting aspect behind it," Wilson said. "I just felt like we were just there having a good time and just meeting other guys."

Of course the main event of the junior day was the UNC-Duke basketball game. While most attendees were scratching it off their bucket lists, Wilson is a veteran of the "Battle of the Blues." When he was younger, he attended the game as a guest of his brother's during his recruitment (he was recruited -- and eventually signed -- to play baseball at UNC, but eventually chose the professional route). More recently, Wilson attended the game a month ago while on a recruiting trip to Duke.

"No matter where the game is played it's the same hype behind it, just because of the two teams," Wilson said. "But, Cameron Indoor is like playing basketball in a house -- it's so small. The Dean Dome is an atmosphere -- it's huge."

During halftime, Wilson and others watched as Michael Jordan announced that the football team would now wear Jordan Brand uniforms.

"That was great," Wilson said. "I think Michigan already has the 'Jumpman' uniforms. I like how it's going to look and I think it's great that Michael Jordan is partnering with his home school."

Even though his father is a Duke basketball fan, Wilson admitted to rooting for the Tar Heels on Saturday night.

"Duke's not in my top seven, but Carolina is," Wilson said. "And I kind of always grew up a Carolina fan. One of my good friends is like a Tar Heel fanatic, so it kind of rubbed off on me a little bit basketball wise."

About two weeks ago, Wilson named Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, UNC, Ohio State, Penn State, and Virginia Tech his top seven. Originally, he planned to choose from that septenary before June, but that proved to be too ambitious with the amount of attention he's receiving. Now, his focus is trimming that list down to four or five schools within the next couple of months.

"It kind of got big for me recently," Wilson said. "It kind of made it a little harder. In the beginning it was like five scholarships, but now it's like 25. Since I got it down to seven, it's not as crazy anymore and I like that."

Wilson's recruitment has become so complicated that he can't even say where UNC -- or any school -- ranks within his top seven.

"I like [UNC], because they're close," Wilson said. "But I like the other schools, too. I can't really say [where UNC is at] right now, because I haven't put a major amount of thought into it. I just have to sit down on my own and think about it."

Ideally, though, Wilson hopes to make a verbal commitment before the football season.

It likely won't be long before Wilson is back on UNC's campus. He plans to attend a spring practice, perhaps as soon as this Thursday.

Wilson is scheduled to visit Virginia Tech on April 8 and Ohio State at the end of his spring break. He's also working on scheduling a trip to Georgia before the summer.


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