It's one thing to make some big plays in the preseason. It's another to carry it over to a critical, every-snap role in the heart of the Browns' defense.
That's what Mack Wilson's been tasked with ever since veteran and captain Christian Kirksey went down with a serious chest injury. Four games into his new role, Wilson continues to impress his position coach, who believes the fifth-round pick "is going to be a big-time player for us."
"Mack is doing a really good job right now," Browns run game coordinator/linebackers coach Al Holcomb said Tuesday. "Obviously, it is on-the-job training being a young guy so he is going to go through some growing pains. Every day, he learns more and more and more and he is starting to feel a little more comfortable not only with the system but with the speed of the game at this level."
In his four starts since Kirksey's injury, Wilson has 22 tackles and two passes defensed. He's come off the field for just one snap.
Check out photos of the Browns taking their team photo by team photographer Matt Starkey
That's a big change from playing zero snaps in the season opener and a handful in the fourth quarter when the game was all but sealed Week 2 against the Jets. That's just part of the deal on an NFL 53-man roster, and the expectations for production at Cleveland's WILL linebacker position haven't changed despite the major dip in experience between Kirksey and Wilson.
"Honestly, I am excited about Mack every time he steps on the field," Holcolmb said. "I think he is a dynamic player. He is a young player that will continue to develop, but I feel like he has a knack for the ball. He will be around the football and he is going to be a big-time player for us."
Both Holcomb and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks stressed the "growing pains" aspect that will pop up here and there as Wilson continues through his rookie season. Not all games are going to show Wilson flash the coverage skills and knack for the ball he displayed throughout the preseason.
Wilson's admitted there have been a few plays where he fitted the run wrong or didn't do his particular assignment the right way. That's life with any young starter, not just a rookie one, and the most important thing Browns coaches have liked from Wilson is the ability to move on to the next play and not let it hang with him.
Kirksey set the bar high, and Wilson hasn't hesitated to say he's holding himself to the same standard. His position coach and teammates are doing the same.
"Mack, as every rookie is, you come in and your head is swimming and in the NFL for the first time," linebacker Joe Schobert said. "As you get more experience, you start to settle down a bit more, you start to trust yourself, make some plays and I think you definitely see that with Mack."