MINNEAPOLIS — When Gophers linebacker Damien Wilson first chose to play football at Jones County (Miss.) Community College, he knew very little about head coach Ray Perkins.
Then Wilson did some research and was blown away by Perkins’ resume.
Perkins played wide receiver at the University of Alabama in the 1960s for legendary Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant. Years later, after a short stint as a player for the Baltimore Colts, Perkins went on to replace Bryant as the head coach in 1983. Perkins went on to eventually coach in the NFL for a handful of teams before finding himself at Jones County at the age of 70.
Wilson spent just one year learning from Perkins, but it was a memorable one.
“Ray Perkins, that’s a great man, to tell you the truth,” Wilson said Saturday after Minnesota’s second fall practice. “He had a big part of teaching me, coaching me, helping me become the man I am today. …
“He gave me a sense of responsibility. I remember one time I missed a practice. He almost ran me to death and I ain’t never missed a practice nowhere since.”
Now the 6-foot-2, 254-pound Wilson gets to learn from Gophers linebackers coach Bill Miller, who coached Ray Lewis when he was the defensive coordinator at the University of Miami in the mid-1990s. Having grown up idolizing the way Lewis plays, Wilson’s eyes get wide when that fact is mentioned.
“That’s the greatest in the game,” Wilson said of Lewis. “If you coached the greatest in the game you’ve got to be doing something right.”
Wilson chose to transfer from Jones County to Minnesota for a number of reasons. He was impressed with Miller, as well as head coach Jerry Kill. It also helped that Wilson’s cousin, David Cobb, is a Gophers running back.
But Wilson also saw an opportunity to play right away at Minnesota and make an impact at middle linebacker. With the graduation of Mike Rallis, the Gophers were looking for someone to step into the middle linebacker role. Since arriving on campus this spring, Wilson has tried to earn the job.
“I think anybody that comes in, certainly when you’re a junior-college player and you come in and you’ve got an opportunity to go through spring ball, it’s going to put you ahead,” Kill said. “Ray’s a heck of a football coach. That’s a good program. When you take a junior-college player or a freshman, you’re going to check out and make sure who they are and go to people who you trust and who you know. Coach Perkins is a guy that’s well documented as a good guy and is going to tell you what you need to know about young people. Him coming out of that program certainly gives him a head start into what we’re doing.”
As a sophomore last year at Jones County Community College, Wilson had 122 tackles (76 solo), a pair of sacks and two pass breakups. Earlier this week, Kill said Wilson and redshirt freshman Jack Lynn were “neck and neck” at the middle linebacker spot this year.
But Lynn has yet to play a snap of college football. Wilson’s two years of experience, even if it was at the junior-college level, may give him the leg up this fall as the Gophers look for the answer at middle linebacker.
“Damien being older and already playing junior college, he’s just a lot stronger. … In those regards, Damien has a little bit of an edge in the size,” said Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. “Even those kids at junior college, they played against some pretty good athletes. Not a whole team of them, but they played against three or four of them. They’ve played some college ball. … Little things like that is the advantage that Damien has.”