Katy (Texas) High School football coach Gary Joseph recalls the first time he learned about Collin Wilder’s ambition as a player, and the story still makes him chuckle. Before Wilder had enrolled in high school, he approached Joseph at an eighth-grade track meet and told him he wanted a chance to play on the varsity football team as a freshman.
That might not sound like a lofty goal at many programs across the country. But this was Texas high school football. And Katy was a powerhouse team that vied for state championships every year. Joseph had coached enough players to know he should reason with Wilder.
“You have to understand, you’re making a jump from junior high football to varsity football,” Joseph said. “It’s very hard, especially playing the secondary and learning coverages and learning techniques and fundamentals. Not many people can do that. But he was very insistent on it.
“He showed up every day in the spring and watched and learned and asked questions. He showed up in the summertime through our strength and conditioning and showed he was physically capable of doing it. We gave him a chance, and he grabbed a hold of it.”
Wilder started every game at safety as a freshman, recorded 56 tackles and helped lead Katy to a state title. In fact, he wound up starting 64 consecutive games in his high school career and winning two state championships on undefeated teams. In his senior season, multiple publications ranked Katy as the No. 1 team in the country.
“He went through some tough growing pains,” Joseph said. “I stayed after him and stayed on him. He’d never been coached that hard. He had to learn the details of the game. I knew that once he withstood that, he had a chance to be a really good football player.
“He was one of the leaders of our football team. I think his greatest characteristic is his work ethic. But the second is his leadership ability.”
Wilder will be bringing those traits to Wisconsin after spending two seasons at Houston. He announced his intention to transfer to Wisconsin on Monday and is expected to arrive this summer. Wilder will be forced to sit out next season under NCAA transfer rules and will be eligible to play in 2019.
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Wilder played in all 13 games for the Cougars as a freshman in 2016, primarily on special teams as a punt returner. He tallied 9 punt returns and averaged 4.4 yards per return. Wilder appeared in two games in 2017 before suffering a season-ending left knee injury and should be granted a medical hardship waiver to retain that year of eligibility.
When Wilder evaluated his transfer options, he said Wisconsin was the first school that came to mind. The Badgers offered him a scholarship back in May 2015, and receivers coach Ted Gilmore served as his lead recruiter.
Wilder visited Wisconsin for spring practice less than two weeks ago and noticed several parallels between what he learned at Katy and how Wisconsin’s program operates. Joseph has such admiration for Wisconsin’s program that he brought his entire offensive coaching staff to Madison this spring to watch the Badgers practice as well.
“I think it’s the blue-collar mentality,” Wilder said. “It’s really big on you taking care of your business and the results showing. I think that’s a lot of who I am. Just the way that they run the program really reminds me a lot of my high school program in Katy. The Katy coaches went up there to watch their spring practice and told me that it’s very identical to the Katy program, so I would be a great fit there just from their perspective. When I went up there, it was everything I expected it to be.”
Wilder said Wisconsin coaches did not discuss the possibility of him returning kicks, but he would do whatever was asked of him. He described himself as an aggressive, physical safety and developed a strong connection with Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard during his visit.
“I like how experienced he is,” Wilder said. “He played the position. There’s a lot of college coaches that coach the safety position that didn’t play safety, let alone 10 years in the NFL. Or a three-time All-American at the school that he’s coaching. I believe he knows the ins and outs of everything that I want to do and everything to be successful.
“I really look forward to working with him. I think that I can take a lot of notes and a lot of lessons that he’s learned and I can bring it to my own game. That’s one thing I’m really excited for with him.”
Two of Wilder’s former Katy teammates now play for Big Ten West rival Northwestern: safety Travis Whillock and linebacker Paddy Fisher. Wisconsin offered scholarships to all three players as high school recruits, and Wilder remains close friends with Whillock and Fisher. He spoke to both players as soon as he texted them of his decision to play at Wisconsin on Monday.
“They said, ‘Wow, we’re actually going to be competing for a Big Ten championship against each other,'” Wilder said. “We kind of laughed about it. It’ll be fun, though. It’ll be fun being a lot closer to them.”
Wilder will compete for playing time in 2019 with several safeties on the roster. Scott Nelson could earn a starting role as a redshirt freshman this season. Nelson, Patrick Johnson, Eric Burrell, Seth Currens and Reggie Pearson Jr., among others, all will have multiple years left in the program.
Wilder’s high school coach is convinced the Badgers have landed a player that will make the program better.
“I think he’ll be a contributor there,” Joseph said. “I don’t think there’s much question. He’s going to do well. He’s one of those kids that you want on your football team because of his leadership, of his confidence and because he’s going to play and do exactly what he’s coached to do. He’s going to play extremely hard. He’ll find a way on the field.
“He knows not only what he’s doing, but he learned what everybody else was doing. He learned why he was doing things. He can get people lined up. He can sit there and make secondary adjustments and calls. He got to be like another coach on the field.”
Wilder, who wasted little time in picking Wisconsin after being granted his transfer release from Houston on April 3, said he has two weeks of classes remaining. He hopes to transfer in time for summer workouts in June. And he is eager to contribute at the college level in much the same way he did while at Katy.
“Obviously you don’t go to a college to just ride the bench,” Wilder said. “But the biggest thing is me being developed as a player. I think everything else will kind of come. Playing time, that’s not in my control or anything like that.
“I want the players to know there that I’m not there to be selfishly taking spots. Some guys have been up there for four years trying to work for it. I’m just going to go up there and look forward to being developed by Coach Leonhard and see where it goes from there.”