PULLMAN – Jack Wilson walked away from basketball last year and turned his attention toward a career in strength coaching.
He became a college football player instead.
Wilson spent parts of three seasons as a center with the basketball programs at Oregon State and Idaho before accepting an unexpected opportunity to try his hand at a new sport.
Now a year into his football career, Wilson is settling in on Washington State’s offensive line and vying for a role at left tackle.
WSU coach Jake Dickert was asked last week to name a lesser-known Cougar who has emerged during spring camp as a potential candidate for playing time in the fall.
“Jack Wilson is really the first one that stands out to me, and he stands out to everybody, because he’s 6-10,” Dickert said. “But you see him on the field and he just keeps getting better. It’s not always perfect, but Jack’s inner makeup wants to be great. (Offensive line coach Clay) McGuire and myself, we’ll coach those types of guys every time.”
Wilson, listed officially at 6-foot-11 and 325 pounds, has made substantial progress in an exceptionally short period. Before walking on at WSU last summer, he’d never strapped up a helmet and shoulder pads.
“I love it,” the redshirt junior walk-on said after a camp session Tuesday at the Indoor Practice Facility. “I can’t be grateful enough for the support these guys have given me. They really welcomed me into the family. Honestly, it’s been a smooth transition for it being my first time playing. Obviously, there’s some bumps, but that’s adversity and I’m eating it up.”
A Montara, California, product, Wilson had considered giving football a shot growing up. But weight restrictions at the youth level would have forced him to play up against older competition. By the time he was a teenager, interest was building among college basketball recruiters.
“When I got to high school, we were thinking about it, but I was getting offers in basketball and I didn’t want to jeopardize it,” said Wilson, a one-sport athlete at prep powerhouse Junipero Serra in San Mateo.
Coming out of high school in 2018, Wilson was tabbed a four-star center recruit by ESPN and the No. 1-rated big man on the West Coast.
He signed with the Beavers over several other major offers and played seven games as a true freshman before being reportedly sidelined by a back injury. Wilson withdrew from OSU and landed at Idaho.
In his first season with the Vandals, Wilson appeared in 18 games off the bench and averaged 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, topping double-figure scoring in four games. He stuck around for the start of the 2020-21 season – and played sparingly in the Vandals’ loss to WSU at Beasley Coliseum – but saw action in only four games before deciding to leave the program in January and plunge into his vocation.
“After Idaho, I was just lifting, just getting bigger,” said Wilson, who weighed just 255 pounds four years ago. “I wanted to look good. I wanted to get bigger, not be a skinny guy, and I wanted to be a strength coach.”
In the meantime, Wilson held down a job at GNC in Moscow and cut his teeth as a strength intern with WSU’s men’s basketball team, a gig he found through a staff connection. The Cougars’ head basketball performance coach, Zach Margolis, previously served as assistant athletic director of strength and conditioning at Saint Mary’s, which tried to recruit Wilson out of Junipero Serra.
One day at work, Wilson ran into Dwain Bradshaw, the WSU football program’s head strength and conditioning coach.
“He came in and was like, ‘Hey, what’s your deal?’ ” Wilson said.
They chatted about the strength and conditioning profession and Wilson’s athletic background. Bradshaw asked Wilson to intern for Cougar football.
“I went in to sign the papers and (coaches) said, ‘We’d be interested in having you,’ ” Wilson said.
Presumably intrigued by his imposing physical attributes and potential, WSU’s staff extended a walk-on offer and Wilson promptly enrolled .
At first, he was sent to defense and stationed on the edge of the line to provide a pass-batting presence up front.
“It was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of reads, a lot of new stuff,’ ” Wilson said. “I just needed to learn the game of football. Switching to the O-line, same thing … but I was a bit smoother.”
He credits edge coach A.J. Cooper for showing him the ropes – teaching alignments, gap recognition and defensive techniques.
After moving to offense in fall camp, Wilson toiled on the Cougars’ scout team throughout last season while soaking up advice from a pair of experienced players in tackles Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan, both of whom started 42 games for WSU.
With Lucas and Ryan out the door, the Cougars are rebuilding at the tackle positions. Starting left guard Jarrett Kingston is shifting to left tackle, but he’s been sidelined for much of spring ball because of an unspecified injury.
Wilson is taking first-team reps in his stead.
“I had that in the back of my mind from the day I got here,” Wilson said of competing for minutes. “I knew I had a long way to go, but I was ready to take that on. It’s just a blessing to be out here and to be able to make the most of it to an extent and to try and keep that going.”
Wilson’s impressive traits include long reach, punching power and nimble footwork. He attributes his agility to his past as a basketball player and his strength to his passion for weight training.
“We’re looking for big things from Jack and just his continued development,” Dickert said. “You see flashes of what it can be, but this is also a guy that just started playing football last year. Those are the types of stories you need in a football team, in a football season, so when you look back, you go, ‘Wow, that guy made a huge impact.’ I think he can be one of those guys.”
McGuire on Wilson
Wilson towers over everyone – including his fellow offensive linemen – at Cougar practices and goes by the nickname “Big Jack.” McGuire, asked Tuesday whether he’s coached anyone of Wilson’s stature, mentioned a former giant on WSU’s O-line: All-American guard Cody “The Continent” O’Connell, who checked in at 6-9 and 360 pounds during his senior season in 2017.
“So, that’s pretty close,” said McGuire, who served as WSU’s O-line coach from 2012-17 before returning to the staff earlier this year. “(Wilson is) just a great kid. He’s got a lot of talent, a lot of ability. Obviously, he doesn’t have a lot of experience playing football, so everything’s new to him. He sees things on a daily basis that he’s never seen before. The best thing to happen right now is just getting him a million reps. He attacks it every day, shows up every day with a great attitude and really has done a great job.”