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September 4, 2009Running through the Kenan Stadium tunnel onto the playing field for a season opening game is one of those rare and unique experiences that members of the North Carolina football team cherish.
For sophomore H-back Christian Wilson, knowing that he'll be running through the tunnel this year to actually be playing in the game is much better than his first time through the tunnel for a season opener, as a leg injury suffered in training camp forced him to miss the first four games of the 2008 season.
"I'm really excited (for Saturday night)," Wilson said. "I remember last year when I came out (of the tunnel) I was kind of mad that I wasn't playing, kind of mad I got hurt in training camp, because the excitement here is just amazing."
"Sitting on the sidelines, I just can't do. I have to play, so I can't wait for it," he added. "It's actually really cool to tell you the truth, from last year thinking I was going to get redshirted and now this year knowing that I'm going to play large amounts. So I'm kind of excited about it and happy for this game coming up."
Although Wilson's injury curtailed his initial development in the UNC offensive system last season, the rookie quickly got up to speed and wound up playing in each of Carolina's final eight games, serving as Zack Pianalto's replacement at tight end after his broke his leg against Georgia Tech.
Wilson caught a couple of passes last fall and provided respectable blocking, although he says that he's grown in that key component of his position.
"According to the coaches, they've said I've been blocking a lot better," he said. "Like I tell most people, I'm more of the 'collision' blocker. I come from distances. But there's a couple of plays I do where I'm on 'point' blocking that I've actually gotten pretty good at."
Most of all, last season's experience provided Wilson valuable perspective in terms of learning just how fast he'll have to play to be a great player at the collegiate level.
"I felt that it gave me obviously experience to play. Now I know how people hit, how fast the game is, so now when I go in (the game) I won't be as nervous as in, 'Am I quick enough?' and things like that," Wilson said. "Playing in that bowl game against West Virginia and everything kind of gave me the confidence that I'll be fine for this season."
"It's a lot easier now, because I've had a whole year to learn it, and then the last eight games of learning it last year. Now this year I know everything, so I'll be able to play more," he added.
One thing that should really help Wilson this season is the fact that he was able to add some muscle mass without losing any of his speed. The weight gain should help with his blocking at the H-back position, while also helping him be more capable of fighting through coverage and potential tacklers when he runs downfield on pass routes.
"Yeah, I was around 225 (pounds) last year. I'm around 240 this year, so I gained around 15 pounds," he said. "My speed wasn't a big change."
Another thing that should help Wilson heading into this season is the fact that he got through this summer's training camp largely unscathed. Although he did suffer a broken 'pinkie' finger on his right hand, which will likely require a splint for Saturday night's contest, it won't affect his availability for the game.
"It (being healthy in training camp) gave me more time to experience plays, playing against our defense, learning college football more than I did (my freshman year)---the hitting, the speed, everything like that," he said. (I'm) pretty much 100 percent. The only thing I really had was the broken pinkie, which really didn't affect me. I actually caught better with the broken pinkie because I was putting more focus on the ball."
"Probably for this first game I'll wear a splint, but after the first game the Doctors say I should be able to take it off and be able to move with it and be able to do some strength exercises to make the bone stronger," Wilson added.
Yet another thing that is going to be a big help for Wilson during his sophomore season is the countless hours of film room time he's logged over the offseason.
"I've actually been watching a lot of film, learning to play the two people that you might have to block the whole game, learning how they do, what stances they use, the way they line up, because everybody has a certain thing that they do that they don't realize, and if you catch that, then you'll be able to beat them more times than they beat you," he said.
Much like his on-field development in terms of learning the speed of the college game, understanding how to study film is a real step up from his high school experience.
"Yeah, basically I've watched the same clips (at UNC) over 1,000 times. In high school you just watch them the night before the game, and kind of see who's their best player, and they run this defense, and now let's go play some football. It's a lot different from high school," he added.
The H-back position, perhaps as much as any other offensive position, requires a tremendous amount of versatility and athleticism.
No other positions with exception of fullback and tight end---and many experts will say that H-back is a combination of those two positions---demands a player to block often much bigger players---including defensive ends, linebackers, and sometimes even defensive tackles---and also to run out on pass routes.
For his part, Wilson is confident that he can handle the responsibilities of being both a key blocker on certain formations and also a weapon in the UNC passing game.
"I think I can do it all, truthfully," he said. "It depends on Coach (John) Shoop calling the plays for me, and him having the confidence that I can do it. If I can show him that I can do whatever he asks, then he'll have no problem calling the plays (for me)."
Over the past several months Wilson has been building a solid relationship with quarterback T.J. Yates and the Tar Heel receivers, of whom most are very similar to Wilson---young, athletic, and immensely talented.
"Me and T.J. are real cool," Wilson said. "Last year I really didn't know him as much because I didn't really play, but then as I started playing more we started to get a little closer, and this year we're real close, I think."
"The wide receiver group is good," he added. "We have a lot of young talent, with Todd (Harrelson) and Dwight (Jones) and even Josh Adams---he's coming in and playing really well too---so I think the wide receivers are going to be fine once they get the jitters out from playing their first college game."
Wilson, one of nine true freshmen to take the field for the Tar Heels in 2008, broke down some of the freshmen and second-year players on this year's UNC team that he expects will find their way into the rotation on Saturday night.
"Obviously Joshua Adams. I know he should be a really good player," he said. "Jamal (Womble), I think the way he's playing, he should be able to play well, too. And a couple of linebackers, Kevin Reddick, he's in there and doing well, and Zach Brown, he's not a freshman, but this is his first time starting at linebacker in college. I think he'll be fine, too."