Wilson forced into leadership role

A year ago, Gibril Wilson was ''the new guy'' in Tennessee's secondary -- fresh from junior college and trying desperately to learn Tennessee's defensive schemes during spring practice.

One year later, he's ''the old hand'' -- the guy who is counted on to be a steadying influence. That's because the Vols' veteran defensive backs are absent this spring. Mark Jones has moved to receiver. Corey Larkins has moved to tailback. Jabari Greer and Robert Boulware are running track, while Rashad Baker is nursing an injury. That leaves Wilson in a leadership role, almost by default.

''I have to be a leader out there,'' he said. ''We won't have Mark or Jabari or Baker out there, so I am more of a leader. Last year I was trying to follow those guys, whereas this year it is the young guys following me.''

So, after only one year in the system, Wilson ranks as the elder statesman of the Vol secondary. Is that difficult?

''Not really,'' he said. ''Throughout the year you get more accustomed to the guys and the system. As a senior, you are expected to do certain things. You gotta be able to lead, take criticism and get the whole unit as one.''

Minus Julian Battle and Willie Miles from last year's defensive backfield, most UT fans expect there will be a decline in the efficiency of the secondary next fall. Wilson seems unwilling to accept that possibility.

''Everybody needs to know their job this year,'' he said. ''If everyone knows what they have to do this year, we just kind of go from there. We've got to play as a unit this year. Last year we played as a unit, but there were a couple of mental breakdowns. We can't have that. We have got to stay focused and stay the path.''

The Vols ranked seventh nationally in total defense last fall but Wilson believes they can do even better.

''Guys shouldn't even catch a ball on us,'' he said. ''When we are in man and play a zone technique, we have to be able to play shutdown defense.''

Because UT will rely heavily on some younger DBs next fall, Wilson plans to spend a lot of time this spring and summer watching film and talking football with them.

''We just have to bond,'' he said. ''These young guys are going to need as much of our help as possible. The more we come together in drills or watching film, the better off well be.''

You can make a good case that the 2002 Vols never did ''come together.'' They were blown out by Maryland in the Peach Bowl and finshed the season with a disappointing 8-5 record. Team chemistry seemed to be a problem.

''That could have been part of it,'' Wilson conceded. ''Last year guys didn't spend much time together. Guys had their own little groups that hung out together. This year we already had some get-togethers at Buffalo Wildwings where practically the whole team goes. Bonding is what we need. We need it to be where we can look into each other's eyes in the fourth quarter and say 'That's my boy and I gotta help him out.' "

Wilson arrived at UT with a reputation as a big-time hitter and did nothing to tarnish that image, eventually winning a first-team job at strong safety. His zest for physical play remains strong.

''I'm ready to hit somebody,'' he said. ''I've been itching to hit somebody.''

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