Catching Up with Russell Wilson's College Buddies

BY Sports Illustrated and Kalyn Kahler/Sports Illustrated via MMQB • December 16, 2016

Before he was a Super Bowl winner and a three-time Pro Bowler, Russell Wilson was a third-round draft pick who started his college career at N.C. State and finished it at Wisconsin, spending one season with Badgers in 2011. Wisconsin’s reputation for churning out NFL-ready offensive linemen was a primary reason why Wilson went to Madison for his final year of college ball, and three of the five starters on that year’s O-line are now starting in the NFL: Cowboys center Travis Frederick, Ravens right tackle Rick Wagner, and Bengals right guard Kevin Zeitler. Two other NFLers, Rams starting right tackle Rob Havenstein and Bills starting center Ryan Groy, made their first college starts with Wilson as their quarterback and regularly subbed into games that year.

The MMQB caught up with these former Badgers to talk about their memories of Wilson and what they now think about the Seahawks QB.

KAHLER: Five years later, how do you look back on that one season with Russell Wilson at Wisconsin?

KEVIN ZEITLER (Bengals): It was probably the best thing that could ever happen to us. Going into the season, we had Jon Budmayr [as our No. 1 quarterback] and he was a great talent, but he had a nerve problem in his elbow that developed right before the season and he ended up not being able to play. I think we would have had a true freshman quarterback that season if Russell hadn’t come.

RICK WAGNER (Ravens): Looking back, it was kind of the perfect situation. The year before was [Colts backup] Scott Tolzien’s last year, and he’s still in the NFL. So we had some young guys coming in at quarterback, but we really didn’t have that starter after the injury to Budmayr.

KAHLER: Did you get a chance to meet Russell on his official visit to Wisconsin?

ZEITLER (Bengals): We heard the news and we probably saw it on SportsCenter that Russell was coming back to college football and N.C. State didn’t want him to play there anymore. So we thought, Hey, maybe he will come here. It was kind of funny, because then we heard that he was going to visit Wisconsin. That day we were having an offensive lift and the entire O-line was pulled out and we were sent to our student-athlete academic center. They were like, Hey, Russell Wilson wanted to meet you guys.

TRAVIS FREDERICK (Cowboys): He had narrowed it down to Auburn and Wisconsin, and Wisconsin’s big selling point was to have him meet the entire offensive line.

RICK WAGNER (Ravens): Our coach said, Try to look as big as possible for him, because he wants to feel like he has big, protective O-linemen.

ROB HAVENSTEIN (Rams): We were called into the team auditorium to show how large we all were. [Average height and weight for the five starters that year was 6-5/322; Havenstein was 6-8/345] That was a theme for us that year. So we didn’t try to look any bigger than we already were, we just showed up.

ZEITLER (Bengals): So we were all standing in a circle and he came in and introduced himself, and he said why he wanted to come to Wisconsin. He said he wanted to win a championship. And we told him what we expected of him if he did come here. I think the overall message we sent to him was, we have heard about everything you have done at N.C. State and we know you are a good athlete, but if you’re going to come here, don’t just come here for the heck of it. Buy in. He made it clear that he wanted to win and he wanted to be a part of it, but we were just making sure. Buy in. If you’re here, we need you to be able to do everything we need you to do. That meeting set the tone. We knew he was serious if he did come to Wisconsin.

KAHLER: Did he fit in with the team right away? How did he transition into the team culture?

WAGNER (Ravens): Looking back, it seems like it was just a seamless transition, but I know he was working hard day and night in the playbook to prepare for camp. It just seemed like from Day 1 that he was with us for years. I have never seen anything like that, so seamlessly taking over and feeling so comfortable.

ZEITLER (Bengals): He came in during the summer and he was there at 5 a.m. everyday. He was always there really early talking with the coaches, working on the playbook, he would be out on the field just calling the plays by himself and running through footwork. He really immersed himself and by the time camp rolled around, we could actually run with the team.

HAVENSTEIN (Rams): One thing he said to us was, I’m here, but I’m not expecting anything. Anything I get I want to be able to say I earned. That might not be an exact quote, but that was the gist of it. He was a hell of a player and we voted him in as a captain that year after only knowing him for a short time, so that has to say something.

FREDERICK (Cowboys): One of the most impressive things that I saw was how quickly he was able to pick up the playbook. It was an expansive playbook, it was NFL-style and he had it down before we even went into training camp. He was able to do that so quickly and that was really impressive to me. He was also one of those guys that you could go to if you had any questions or if you had adjustments. As an offensive line, sometimes the quarterback isn’t really that concerned about what you have going on or how it gets done, but Russell was always wanting to know exactly how things were going to work and he wanted to help with adjustments.

KAHLER: Was there a moment that season where you thought, This guy could be an NFL starter?

WAGNER (Ravens): In the first game against UNLV, I don’t know if it was a designed run for him or if he just scrambled, but he took off for [46 yards] and a touchdown and we hadn’t had that at Wisconsin, a true mobile quarterback. We all kind of looked around at each other and knew we had something special that season.

FREDERICK (Cowboys): He was able to take some broken plays and really make great plays with his feet. I don’t think we had a lot built into the system for him to take called runs, but he was able to extend plays and make plays for us. Throughout the season you could see how he grew as a quarterback.

KAHLER: Was that UNLV touchdown run the best play you’ve seen him make? Or is there another one?

ZEITLER (Bengals): That break for a long touchdown from that first game against UNLV was one of those big, eye-opening, holy cow moments. There was also a trick play in the Big Ten championship game and then a big fourth-down conversion in the Big Ten championship game, all very clutch plays. The trick play was a throw back to Wilson [from running back Montee Ball.] It was just like the one he did in Seattle where Doug Baldwin threw him a touchdown pass a few weeks ago. It was real similar to that.

WAGNER (Ravens): I would say it’s the fourth-down conversion in the Big Ten championship game. He scrambled around and found a player to convert and we ended up continuing on and winning.

GROY (Bills): That's the one I remember the most: that Michigan State game, the Big Ten championship, when he broke outside and made a guy miss and threw it down deep to Jeff Duckworth on fourth down and that ended up being the biggest play of the year. He makes really anything happen from nothing.

KAHLER: What was Wilson like in the huddle?

ZEITLER (Bengals): He just had a presence about him, the way he called the play. You knew that he knew what he was doing.

WAGNER (Ravens): He was so professional right from the beginning. It seemed like we had an NFL quarterback with us right there in college.

KAHLER: What is it like, in general, blocking for a quarterback like Wilson whose style is so sandlot?

ZEITLER (Bengals): It’s a blessing and a curse for O-linemen. He obviously can run like the wind and make things happen, which is an amazing ability. But then again, as an O-linemen sometimes you have no idea where he is behind you and it is just a surprise, all of a sudden he is right next to you.    

WAGNER (Ravens): With him the play is never over, there is always a chance for him to do something. We had to continue to block because you never knew what was going to happen.

GROY (Bills): You don’t always have to be perfect, you try to be perfect and block it up as best as you can, but when you have a guy like that who is that versatile and that shifty, he can make plays and he can make you right. He can help you out avoiding that guy and making plays deep or avoiding your guy if you miss a guy and running for a first down, that kind of thing.

KAHLER: What similarities do you see between your quarterback now, Tyrod Taylor, and Russell Wilson?

GROY (Bills): Tyrod and him are pretty similar athletically, as far as being able to get out of the pocket and make guys miss and make something out of nothing. It’s like having a guy like [running back] LeSean McCoy; he’s kind of the same way. We might miss a block up front and he’ll make them miss, outstanding guy as far as just being so quick and so elusive and it’s the same kind of thing with Russell or Tyrod. Those guys can make something out of that bad situation.

KAHLER: Heading into the 2012 draft, Wilson had a lot of skeptics. Are you surprised he is where he is today?

ZEITLER (Bengals): No. Russell and I were the same draft class, so when I went to the combine all the coaches and teams asked me about him. I always said there is no doubt in my mind that he could play in the NFL. It was just the way he handled business and his life. He was going to be able to do anything they asked of him. People talked about how short he is. Well, we had a pretty tall O-line that year, so he had already proved that he could play with these bigger, taller offensive linemen.

KAHLER: What did NFL coaches ask you about Russell at the combine?

ZEITLER (Bengals): A lot of them were general questions, like, Hey what do you think of Russell Wilson? My go-to answer was I think he could be president of the United States if he wanted to be. That goes back to how he handled himself, his presence.

KAHLER: In the media and in the public eye, Wilson comes across as very predictable, very polished and maybe even a little robotic at times. What is he like away from the spotlight?

GROY (Bills): That’s just Russell, in my opinion. Everything you see, his interviews, his playing, when he’s mic-ed up or whatever, that’s him. That’s not him pretending to be somebody else, that is Russell. He is so prepared for every situation that he is doing. He is always so prepared. It’s not like he ever slips up when he is trying to say something. He is prepared for every situation, whether it is media or whether it is the next thing he is doing. He is always prepared and he’s got it figured out.

ZEITLER (Bengals): He’s definitely not boring. I didn’t go out much in college and I don’t think he went out that much either, so I don’t have any stories. He is a really cool guy and he took care of his business.

KAHLER: You knew Russell Wilson before he was Russell Wilson. What it like to see him get so famous? 

GROY (Bills): It’s not surprising; he has such a strong presence. He is the kind of guy that people want to be around and people want to know. He does the right things and says the right things. He is so intelligent and I don’t think any of us expected him to get drafted that late, everybody blames it on the height and this and that, but when you go back and look at how he played and how intelligent he is, it was mind-blowing to see him go that late. But then it was no surprise to see him win the job in Seattle’s camp to start his rookie year.

KAHLER: You’re all watching each other in the NFL now. What did you think of Wilson getting picked off at the goal line by the Patriots at the end of Super Bowl XLIX? As linemen would you have wanted a run?

WAGNER (Ravens): Personally, I always prefer to run the ball. That’s the nature of a being an O-lineman, but I am not the play-caller. I don’t see all the things that they see, so it really doesn’t matter to me if it was a run or pass.

ZEITLER (Bengals): I was going back and forth on that one actually. I remember when it happened—I was shocked. Obviously the Patriots coaches prepared hard and they thought it was going to happen and they made a play. You have to just trust the coaches in that situation. You can always say, Of course we wanted to run it, but that is such a tough call right there. Hindsight is 20/20, it’s just crazy to think whether the route was flipped to a corner route instead of that inside slant, then [Seahawks receiver Ricardo] Lockette is wide open. It’s crazy. I don’t know what the right call is.

GROY (Bills): I was shocked, I was pretty pumped for him to get another one and it was too bad. In my mind I would always say, run the ball, run the ball. But when you have teams like that, where you have that good of a running game, I think teams would be surprised if you threw it in that situation. In that case I think it is a good call because I think they expect you to run it and they will put bigger personnel in it, and then when you throw it, it might catch them off guard. I think it is a good thought.

KAHLER: Do you think Wilson would have even been given a real chance in the NFL had he not played behind you guys? Would he have been a baseball player instead?

WAGNER (RAVENS): I think it obviously helped him out. He got a lot of exposure that year; we were on national TV a lot. It definitely didn’t hurt, some people saw him that probably wouldn’t have if he played somewhere else.

ZEITLER (Bengals): I think he would have gotten an NFL chance. I think more than anything, playing behind us—a tall, good offensive line—he showed he could do that with his height and was comfortable with it.

GROY (Bills): I honestly think he could have done it at other places, it’s not like Wisconsin was his only offer. I think he could have played in the NFL no matter where he went. For him picking Wisconsin and playing with coach Paul Chryst, I think that did a lot for his career. Coach Chryst is such an offensive mastermind and such a great coach that he was able to help Russell with certain things that he was learning still.

KAHLER: Do you ever look back on that season and think about how impressive it is that you four and Russell are all NFL starters now?

FREDERICK (Cowboys): That definitely is crazy to think about, but I think that is just a testament to the University of Wisconsin and the great offensive line tradition there.

WAGNER: I just remember that group being so special. Looking around and knowing that there were going to be some NFL players. It gave me confidence going forward; that if I can play up to the level of my peers, I definitely had a future in the NFL … it seems like every team has a Badger on it everywhere we go.

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