Trey Wilson is making up for lost time.
The last two years, the Vanderbilt junior patiently waited for his turn in the secondary. He played in every game but most of his contributions came as a reserve or on special teams.
When a new coaching staff arrived last winter with the mindset that every starting position was up for grabs, Wilson took that challenge literally.
Three games into the season, he has shown why he earned the starting nod at one of the two cornerback positions over returning starter Eddie Foster. Entering Saturday’s showdown at No. 12 South Carolina, Wilson’s three interceptions are tied for the most in the country.
“When the ball is in the air, I am going to try to go make a play,” Wilson said. “I am not a DB any more when they put the ball in the air. That is my ball. So I’m going to go up and get it. ... [The coaching staff] believed in me and put me out there on the field. I’m having their back by making plays.”
Paced by Wilson, Vanderbilt leads the country with 10 interceptions — already more than all of last year (nine). The Commodores lead the Southeastern Conference with a plus-six turnover margin and have done it together. Six different players have picked off passes.
“It is great knowing you have four to six playmakers in the secondary at a time,” Wilson said. “It is crazy knowing we got that kind of talent out there and we got that ability. Hopefully we start making teams one-dimensional.”
But the biggest surprise in the secondary — at least to those outside of Vanderbilt — has been Wilson.
Going into the season, the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder flew under the radar as he lined up opposite of All-SEC candidate Casey Hayward. The senior cornerback has built a stingy reputation with 10 career interceptions, including six last year.
So early on opponents have tried to pick on the new guy.
“I’m not the All-American in the secondary,” Wilson said. “It is Russian Roulette taking your chances on that side of the ball. Everybody knows [Hayward] is really likely to get his hands on the ball and create turnovers. I feel like they are still going to take their chances with me.”
So far, he has made opponents pay.
Wilson, a native of Shreveport, La., offered a glimpse of his potential during spring practices and preseason camp last month. He delivered crushing, open-field tackles and collected several interceptions, including one he returned 105 yards for a touchdown during a scrimmage in March.
Once the season started, it didn’t take him long to find the end zone. In the opener against Elon, in just his second career start, he made his first career interception and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown.
Last weekend, in the SEC opener against Ole Miss, he recorded another pick-six. Quarterback Zack Stoudt, who threw five interceptions, was hit by defensive end Walker May as he lofted a pass in the second quarter. That led to a wobbly, fluttering throw that landed in the hands of Wilson, who raced 52 yards to the end zone. Before the day ended, Wilson had another interception and broke up three passes
On Monday, he was named the SEC’s defensive player of the week.
“Those were two really good deep ball one-on-one plays,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said of Wilson’s interceptions Saturday. “Either you make a play or the other guy makes a play. He made them [Saturday]. It is not going to getting any easier from here on out.”
The Commodores will face their biggest challenge yet in South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound junior was named an All-American and is a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation’s top receiver.
In three seasons, he has 146 receptions, for 2,492 yards and 16 touchdowns. Two of his top top three career receiving performances have been against Vanderbilt. Last year, he caught a career-high nine passes against the Commodores for 158 yards.
If Wilson happens to get the chance to cover Jeffery on Saturday, he says his mindset won’t change.
“He is just another one,” Wilson said. “He is a good athlete, great size, great hands. But I can’t look at him as, ‘OK, he is the guy.’ I just got to treat him like I treat anybody else that lines up out there.”
• Running back Warren Norman (knee) and tight end Brandon Barden (ankle) will travel to South Carolina.
Norman has not played this season after undergoing offseason knee surgery. But he participated in live repetitions earlier in the week and on Wednesday and head coach James Franklin said, “He is ready to go if we need him.”
When asked about redshirting Norman, a junior, who led the team in rushing the last two years, Franklin said it was too early in the season to make that decision.
Barden limped around on Wednesday and saw limited action with wrapped left ankle.
“His plan is to be ready to go late in the week,” Franklin said.
• The Commodores cranked up the noise on Wednesday, with three sets of speakers blaring crowd noise, static, music from Star Wars and the South Carolina rooster crow.
Franklin said he hoped to have the Vanderbilt marching band present on Thursday. Piping in music to prepare for road venues has been a staple at practices since fall camp began in August.
“We are trying to create as much adversity in practice as we can,” Franklin said. “Talking to the officials [who were at practice] they said at times it will be louder than we had it [Wednesday]. We had one speaker that blew out.”