Temple's Wilkerson leans on family during big draft moment

Posted: April 28, 2011

All that Muhammad Wilkerson ever wanted is about to become reality.

He isn't exactly sure about the when or who part. And to be honest, he isn't really too concerned about the details. The fact that it's going to happen, and the next step in his life will finally begin, is all that matters. The rest of it is for everyone else to worry about.

The first round of the NFL draft will unfold tonight. There's every chance that Wilkerson - a 6-3, 315-pound defensive lineman from Temple who has been timed at 4.9 seconds over 40 yards - could be taken as early as the midteens, which would make him the first Owl to go in the opening round since Heisman Trophy runner-up Paul Palmer in 1987.

Or, he could always remain on the board until tomorrow's second round. Sometimes you never know about these things until they're official.

Yet it doesn't seem to matter much to Wilkerson, who plans on monitoring the proceedings with his parents and three siblings in a hall near his home in Linden, N.J. He wasn't invited to the NFL's big party in New York. But he would have declined anyway. He'd rather share the moment with those who mean the most to him.

"My family has always been there for me, giving me support," he said the other day. "I have two brothers and a sister. I'm the youngest boy. Just growing up, my older brother [Laquan] played football. I watched him when he was in high school. That encouraged me to play. I just took it from there . . . They're always checking up on me, making sure things are going well.

"It's just a dinner. Nothing too big. There'll probably be 70 or 80 people there, helping us celebrate. People who know me know I'm a humble person. All that talk about being a first-rounder, it's cool. But if I don't go there, so be it. Hopefully Friday then. At the end of the day it's all the same. It won't be a big issue. If other people want to get caught up in that, that's on them. But it's not about them. It's on me. And I'm not worried. Somebody's going to take me because they want me, and think I can help their team. That's what counts."

Sounds like a fair enough perspective. Wilkerson, who came out a year early, has played in both the 3-4 and 4-3 with the Owls, so he could be used both inside or out. There aren't many guys who can bring his kind of versatility to the equation. Being unique is always a plus. But it does make it a little harder to zero in on where he might fit in on that board.

He went to the combine and made visits to Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tennessee, Minnesota, Baltimore, Oakland, both New Yorks and the Eagles, who own the 23rd pick. And yes, he has thought about playing pro ball in the same stadium that he did collegiately. But, after being a young Giants fan, he now just enjoys watching all the teams.

"It's been a long process, but I enjoyed every part of it," said Wilkerson, who has been working out in Atlanta. "It was a great experience, seeing all those guys at the combine, most who went to big schools, out there competing just like I was. You hear people say you only went to Temple, or you only played in the [Mid-American Conference], things of that nature. But I've learned that it doesn't matter where you came from, as long as you've got talent and can produce you're going to be fine.

"My freshman year, I backed up Terrance Knighton. Now he's with the Jaguars, starting since his rookie season. That motivated me. I had big shoes to fill. But I wound up doing real well as a first-year starter. That's when I really started thinking about possibly being a pro. The coaches always believed in me, pushed me to the limit. I just had to give it my all, show my potential."

And here he is, about to take the next step, the biggest step. Two former teammates, strong safety Jaiquawn Jarrett and linebacker Elijah "Peanut" Joseph, are also expected to get taken in the mid-to-late rounds.

"I speak to those guys all the time," Wilkerson said. "We always make sure we keep the connection going. We're all excited for each other. It's something we've always dreamed of doing."

All that remains are the details. And the rest of the journey.

"Right now, a lot of teams are interested, but it's a waiting game, a guessing game," Wilkerson said. "It's too hard to figure out what teams really want me. So you've got to wait and see. That's why I can't think about it. My agent focuses on that. I just keep training, working hard and staying in condition. But I think I have a lot more upside.

"Coming out of [Linden] high school, some schools were talking to me but once they saw that I wasn't going to qualify [academically], they stopped. But Temple stuck with me, even the whole time I was at prep school [Hargrave Military Academy]. So I look at it as a business. That's how it goes. It's not my loss anymore. I'm doing pretty fine. Maybe those other schools wish they had me . . .

"Once I really felt that I could possibly be a pro, we had to fill out a paper listing our goals. And I wrote down to be a first- or second-rounder. So we'll see come [tonight] if it comes true." *

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