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Emanuel Wilson’s rise from Division II star to preseason standout

Emanuel Wilson is locked in a battle for the Packers’ third running back spot. Here’s how he got to this point.

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Emanuel Wilson’s 80-yard touchdown run is the Packers’ biggest play of the preseason. By a lot.

It’s true that the exhibition slate isn’t necessarily a breeding ground for explosive plays. Suspect blocking and subpar talent don’t lend themselves to a ton of highlight-reel performances, even if the defense is usually just as suspect. And Wilson, a somewhat lightly regarded prospect out of a small school at a low level of college football, isn’t the kind of player you’d necessarily expect to break off a big one.

But Wilson has been making plays at every stop of his football journey, one that could be taking him to a spot on the Packers’ initial 53-man roster.

A high school star with a knack for big plays

A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Wilson played his pre-college ball at North Mecklenberg High School. There, big plays — and big games — were more the rule than the exception. His stat lines sound almost mythical. 28 carries for 271 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff win. 334 yards on 19 carries, including touchdowns of 63, 82, and 95 yards. 130 yards on five touchdown runs alone in the first half of a blowout. He averaged more than eight yards per carry as a high school senior.

Wilson rode his high school success to a spot at Division II Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. He redshirted as a freshman, but he got back to his big play ways in his first season of action with the Golden Bulls, rushing for 1,040 yards and 13 scores on 159 carries. He then transferred to Fort Valley State University in Georgia, making the most of another Division II HBCU opportunity. 2020 was a lost year, but Wilson led FVSU with 835 yards on the ground during his 2021 season.

2022 brought out his best. Carrying 209 times over just 10 games, Wilson piled up 1,371 yards on the ground and added another 239 yards on 24 catches, scoring 19 total touchdowns. His best moment came on FVSU’s biggest stage. Facing off against Tuskegee University in the second-annual Red Tails Classic, Wilson ripped off an 87-yard touchdown run to seal the win as a part of a 262-yard rushing day.

Big plays don’t translate into initial NFL attention, but Wilson persists

Despite his stats, Wilson’s college performance didn’t translate into much buzz in the lead-up to the 2023 NFL Draft. Wilson’s performance at the HBCU Combine earned him a middling 6.83 Relative Athletic Score, and a representative scouting report accurately pegged him as an undrafted free agent.

But Wilson has just continued to make plays. After a cup of coffee with the Denver Broncos, Wilson signed with the Packers in late May. He’s parlayed that role into a series of big moments. His 80-yard score has garnered the most headlines, but he’s added another touchdown of 11 yards and four other touches for double-digit yardage. Of his 21 preseason carries, only two have gone for a loss or no gain.

It’s true that most of Wilson’s work has come against deep backups. His first carry against the Bengals didn’t come until there were less than 10 minutes left in the third quarter. But he’s made plays when given opportunities, just as he he did in high school, at Johnson C. Smith, and Fort Valley State.

There’s more to be done. Even if Wilson has made more plays than 2022 practice squad player Tyler Goodson or 2023 draft pick Lew Nichols, Patrick Taylor still looms. Taylor hasn’t put up the same numbers as Wilson, but he contributes in other ways and was a core special teams player in 2022. Wilson has logged just two snaps on special teams so far in the preseason, appearing twice on the kickoff return team against the Patriots.

That’s a far cry from Taylor’s 21 snaps on special teams over two preseason games, but it’s a start. If Wilson can continue to find playing time on special teams, he may carve out a role for himself on the practice squad as Taylor did before him. For someone who’s kept his career humming along on big plays, that may be all he needs. The next big carry may only be one play away.


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