- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004

He played at a high school so small that one season the football team had just 12 players, so it’s no surprise Mark Wilson was too nervous to sleep the night before his first game for California. The stadium looked huge as he ran onto the field for the opening play. But once the ball was snapped and he smacked into his man, Wilson knew he belonged.

Wilson and the Washington Redskins are hoping for a repeat of that tomorrow in Pittsburgh, where the rookie offensive right tackle will make his NFL debut against the 9-1 Steelers and their unconventional 3-4 defense.

Wilson has zoomed from afterthought to starter because right tackle Jon Jansen is on injured reserve, backup Kenyatta Jones was found wanting and 41-year-old Ray Brown is shifting to right guard to replace Randy Thomas, who strained a hamstring in last week’s loss in Philadelphia.

“I definitely have my work cut out for me, but I’m not doing it alone,” Wilson said. “I’ve got Ray right to my left helping me out. We get new keys every day, so things that were hazy at the beginning of the week are more focus in now. Going against a 3-4 changes everything, but I had one of my better games last year against Air Force, which runs the 3-4. It’s been a while since I’ve taken game-speed reps, but I can’t use that as an excuse. I’ve just got to play hard and play fast.”

If the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Wilson has made a mark in his seven months as a Redskin, it’s for his work ethic. That quality comes naturally to the 24-year-old from tiny McArthur, Calif., where he spent his high school summers working on a garlic farm.

“I would get up at 5 in the morning and start work at 6,” Wilson recalled. “I started out picking dirt clods out of the machine and the garlic that the machine had missed. My last two years I graduated to driving the tractor, which was a lot better because you got to sit in the air conditioning instead of being out there in the heat.”

Wilson never figured to experience the heat of playing in the Pac-10. Fresno State or Nevada were his dream destinations until a local referee tipped off the University of Washington’s offensive line coach, who was recruiting at a junior college 75 minutes from Wilson’s hometown. Word soon spread about Wilson’s talents, and he wound up starting all 48 games for Cal, making all-conference as a senior at left tackle.

In preparation for February’s scouting combine, Wilson’s agent, Ethan Lock, hired veteran NFL offensive line coach Joe Bugel to work with his prospect. Yet before much work could be done, Bugel was back in the league as an assistant with the Redskins. A few months later, Washington drafted Wilson in the fifth round.

“I thought it was going to be a year before Mark would get into the flow here, but he has a pretty good feel for the game,” said Bugel, who helped transform Joe Jacoby, Jeff Bostic and Mark Schlereth from undrafted or late-round picks into Pro Bowl linemen during his first Redskins tenure. “I like how Mark has adjusted to the right side after playing the last two years of college on the left side. He has gained a lot of quickness since he’s been with us, and he’s tuned up his body.

“Mark’s a really intelligent, confident kid who’s played the Southern Cals and people like that so I don’t think he’ll be intimidated by the Steelers. It’s just going to be 1,000 miles per hour.”

With two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels and Jansen both in their 20s, it will be almost impossible for Wilson to parlay this shot into a regular starting spot. However, he isn’t concerned with that.

“I want to show the organization that I’m a reliable player, that I’m a keeper,” Wilson said. “I want to be here. This is my opportunity to show that.”

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