STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Geoff Collins has seen this type of receiver before. It was 2006 and he was the recruiting coordinator at Georgia Tech.
At practice and during games, he’d watch No. 21 running routes and his eyes would light up. Tall, rangy, explosive; he saw was the kind of player who would drive him nuts when he later became a defensive coordinator.
They say you can’t teach size. Well, it’s almost as impossible to defend it.
No. 21 was, of course, Calvin Johnson.
The Biletnikoff winner was a once-in-a-generation receiver. At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, he took over games with his size and athleticism. He became the second overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Detroit Lions and then became an NFL superstar.
“I’m not putting Bear at that level,” Collins said, “but you see the similarities and the natural physical ability. However far he wants to take it, he can take it.”
Bear, or Bear Force One depending on who you ask, is better known as Mississippi State’s De'Runnya Wilson. The true sophomore is tied for second in the SEC in receiving touchdowns (5) and fourth in yards per reception (17.6).
Wilson isn’t Megatron yet, but if you’re looking for raw talent to dream on, look no further than Mississippi State’s biggest receiver, the dreadlocked target wearing No. 1. On Saturday, he'll be on the national stage again as the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs host No. 2 Auburn.
It’s a somewhat obscure stat, but maybe this will paint a picture of how explosive a player Wilson can be: Of his 14 receptions, 100 percent of them have gone for a first down or touchdown. Only one other player in the country, Miami’s Phillip Dorsett, has that same perfectly productive percentage.
It’s a shame to think all that ability might have gone to waste.
Wilson, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, gave up football at a young age. He didn’t think he’d be able to play much in high school, so he drifted to the hardwood. There, at 6-foot-5, he could dominate at power forward, and he eventually earned the title of Mr. Basketball in the state in 2013. While Wenonah High’s football team struggled to win games, the basketball team won three straight state championships with Wilson as its double-double machine.
Then, almost on a whim, Wilson decided to give football another chance.
He didn’t know what he was doing. Lining up was a chore. His job was simple: go up and get the football.
And that’s what he did, leading his team with seven touchdowns that year.
Collins, who recruits the Birmingham area for Mississippi State, hadn’t heard of Wilson until he was sent a newspaper clipping about the fast-rising senior. He was able to get some tape of him and decided a trip to the high school was worth it.
“He had unbelievable physical gifts,” he explained.
Wilson was a raw prospect but that’s what Mississippi State likes to pursue.
It’s not a program that reaches for many four-star and five-star recruits; that’s the business of the Alabamas and Floridas of the world. Instead, coach Dan Mullen asks his assistants to find him diamonds in the rough.
And boy, did Collins have one on his hands.
Billy Gonzales, Mississippi State’s wide receivers coach, would later see just how far in the weeds Collins had gone to find him his next project.
“Ex-treme-ly raw,” Gonzales said, drawing out every syllable.
Usually, Gonzales spends the first round of two-a-days yelling at rookies about defensive recognition and route adjustments. But with Wilson, he couldn’t even start there. He didn’t know what coverages were.
“That was all completely new to him, so I had to take a step back and reteach from the very beginning and set the foundation at the ground level,” Gonzales said.
Wilson’s response: “Coach, I’ll do whatever we need to do. But you have to remember I’ve played only one year of football, so this is all new.”
“I didn’t realize he was going to be as athletic as he was,” Gonzales said. “When you have a big kid coming in, you wonder if he’s going to grow into a tight end. Watching him move around it was obvious he was going to be a big receiver and cause mismatches. As a position coach, those are the guys who get you excited.”
Wilson somehow knew football was the right path.
He just didn’t know it until after he took his first official visit. Murray State and Utah State had offered hoops scholarships. There was even the temptation of a paycheck to play pro basketball overseas, he said.
“I had plans to play basketball, but I don’t know what it was,” Wilson said. “I took that football home and I really wanted to bring that back. I really wanted to be a Mississippi State Bulldog.”
There was a financial incentive, too.
As a 6-foot-5 forward, Wilson was a dime a dozen. But as a 6-foot-5 receiver with a 35-inch vertical, he was something special.
Catching 26 passes as a true freshman at State showed he could play. With a little effort on the Jugs machine, running routes and studying defenses during the offfseason, he wanted to see how much further he could go.
So Wilson went to work, continuing to earn his nickname “Bear,” which came from his high school coach’s description of a schedule that included football, basketball and track. It was a “bear of a load,” he said.
“A year ago, I never would have thought I’d be a starting receiver in the SEC,” Wilson said. “It paid off. It’s really hard to explain because I’m still learning the game of football.”
Just how high is Wilson’s ceiling?
“The sky’s the limit,” said Collins.
“Oh heck, we’ve not even come close,” said Gonzales.
“He’s still developing,” said Mullen. “He has great ball skills and body control. His size makes him a tough matchup.”
When asked who he patterns his game after, Wilson’s answer shouldn’t surprise you.
“Calvin Johnson,” Wilson said after taking a few moments to think. “He’s a monster.”