Always be prepared.
Seth Wilson had no idea when he would he would be called upon to take the field for the North Dakota State University football team when he left for Fargo, N.D., to join new teammates after a dominant career at Holmen High School.
He wanted to play immediately, but cracking the lineup for an FCS program with five national championships since 2011 isn’t easy for anyone, let alone a freshman.
There was no way of knowing as a redshirt freshman — meaning Wilson could practice with the team and attend all team meetings, but couldn’t play in games — that he’d be preparing to help the Bison (13-1) play James Madison (14-0) for the FCS championship Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.
So how did the 5-foot-10, 189-pound running back get from playing for the scout team to gaining 194 yards in last week’s 55-13 semifinal win over Sam Houston State?
It took commitment, preparation and the right circumstance to give Wilson a quicker opportunity to build on a senior high school season that included 2,027 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns at Holmen.
It started by attacking conditioning drills and hitting the weight room hard. He took meticulous notes — a lot of them — in meetings and made studying the playbook his favorite pastime.
“He was so diligent in taking notes,” NDSU offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said of Wilson. “He was always writing in his daily notebook. That notebook just kept coming back out.”
Physical skill was never a question for coaches when it came to Wilson. The understanding of what to do when the opportunity arose — as with any young player — had to be. That is why the North Dakota State coaching staff initially decided to have Wilson spend this season — his true freshman season — learning everything he could, then come back next year as a redshirt freshman with four full years of eligibility remaining. Injuries to the running backs ahead of him on the depth chart changed those plans.
“Everything started with learning the offense,” said Wilson, who has rushed for 407 yards and a touchdown and caught six passes for 66 yards and two more scores since having his redshirt tag removed. “I had to consistently show them that I could be trusted with what had to be done.”
He had to show he could think quickly, that he wouldn’t get lost. The notes, the attention to detail were the basis for proving that.
“You hear a 15-word play from the quarterback, and first you decipher what that means,” Wilson said. “You have five seconds to figure out where to line up. You have to do the right thing pre-snap and post-snap.
“It’s a lot more advanced than anything you do in high school.”
Wilson’s first big test came in the eighth game and after injuries were sustained by four other backs. He didn’t carry the ball in a 30-14 win over Northern Iowa, but he was there if needed.
Wilson carried three times for 1 yard and caught two passes for 25 more when NDSU fell to South Dakota State 33-21 the next week before scoring his first touchdown to help the Bison beat South Dakota 49-14 on Nov. 11 at the Fargodome.
The touchdown — a 28-yard run in the second quarter that gave NDSU a 21-7 lead in front of a crowd of more than 18,000 people — was a surreal moment for the freshman, who said he reached for the end zone but wasn’t sure if his knee touched the ground before he broke the plane of the goal line.
Wilson turned his head toward the official for confirmation. After a brief pause, back judge Ryan Gannon — the Mississippi Valley Conference commissioner and one of Wilson’s physical education teachers while growing up in Holmen — raised his arms into the air to signal the touchdown.
“I looked him in his eyes, and he made the call,” Wilson said. “It was crazy that it was him.”
That Wilson wasted little time in taking advantage of the opportunity, however, wasn’t crazy to Messingham. The coach saw too many good things early in the season for that to be the case.
The coach saw potential quickly, and while he didn’t know if it would be released this season with so much talent at the position, Messingham said the skills to contribute were there.
“One being his general knowledge of football and ability to pick things up are fantastic,” Messingham said. “Two would be his physical skills and ability to make people miss.
“Some of that is a mindset, and some of it is fundamentals. He has an innate ability to make things happen.”
Wilson, who rushed for more than 3,000 yards and scored 45 touchdowns during his career at Holmen, caught a 19-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring of a 38-3 first-round playoff win over San Diego. He scored again on an 18-yard catch in a 42-10 second-round win over Wofford.
Getting into the end zone with some regularity gave Wilson added credibility with his offensive line. While he knew everyone blocking for him in high school pretty well, NDSU represented the opportunity to build trust with a new group of players.
“The bond started to grow,” he said. “These are older guys who know what’s expected. I went in the huddle (at first) and hadn’t showed them anything yet. They’d say, ‘Here we go, Seth, let’s get the job done.’
“As I showed them I could be reliable, it turned into ‘Let’s break this one now.’”
Wilson, who balanced all of this while taking 15 credits during the fall semester, couldn’t be feeling better than he is after the big game against Sam Houston. He ran for 125 yards in the second half and did the bulk of the work on NDSU’s final two drives, which lasted more than five minutes each.
And he did it all in front of his dad, Stanley Wilson, for the first time.
“It was the first time he saw me play (in person),” Seth said of Stanley, who starred as a running back at the University of Oklahoma before scoring 11 touchdowns in four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. “He was proud.
“He’s been through it all, so he has his critiques and advice.”
It’s a good bet that information will find its way into the notebook.