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March 2, 2010Eleanor Roosevelt is loaded with potential Division I prospects next season. Raiders coach Tom Green, who is no stranger to BCS recruits, projects at least five players to reach the top level. That's an eye-popping number for a public school.
But one prospect in particular stands out. When Green and his staff watch junior Howard Wilder play defensive back, they can't help but think of another former Roosevelt star.
"Howard reminds all our coaches of [2009 four-star recruit] Derrick Thomas, who went on to play defensive back at Penn State," Green said. "If you put Howard in Derrick Thomas' jersey you'd think Derrick was still at Eleanor Roosevelt. That's how similar they are."
The similarities are indeed striking. Same positions (wide receiver and defensive back); same height (6-feet); same weight (175 pounds); same 40-yard dash time (4.45). Same instincts, athleticism and ball skills.
In fact, around Roosevelt they've dubbed Howard "little Derrick." It's not the hippest nickname in the world, but it's one Wilder doesn't mind.
"I definitely think I can be the next Derrick Thomas," said the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Wilder. "Actually, I've been playing with Derrick and [2009 Penn State commit] Stephon Morris since Boys and Girls Club. I can play at their level."
Like Thomas, Wilder is versatile and multitalented. In 2009 he lined up at safety, cornerback, receiver and kick returner. But even though he caught 20 passes as a receiver, it's defensive back where Wilder did his most damage. He captained the secondary and had over 30 tackles and recorded four interceptions.
"He's athletic, he's explosive, he has very good ball skills and he does great things when the ball's in his hands," Green said. "He makes great cuts and he's so smooth making transitions. He's very talented."
Wilder has exceptional physical traits, but what makes him a complete player is his football acumen. He was able to play both safety and cornerback last year, which isn't an easy transition. The responsibilities are completely different.
But Wilder mastered each position thanks to extensive film study and hours spent working with trainers and players like Thomas.
"When I'm playing safety I look at the quarterback, watching his every move," Wilder explained. "I'm playing center field, waiting for him to make a mistake. When he does, I'm all over it.
"And when I'm playing cornerback, I'm putting pressure on the receiver to knock them off of their routes," Wilder continued. "But if he gets off the line, I have the speed and skills to stay with him."
It didn't seem to matter where Wilder played last year: He performed.
Green recalls a play Wilder made against Parkdale, a spread team that throws more than usual. On one possession they lined up with five wide receivers and an empty backfield, a formation rarely seen in run-first Prince George's County.
Wilder, who was playing safety, recognized the scheme from film study. He checked the defense into a cover-2, expecting Parkdale to throw it deep. Right on cue, Parkdale sent two receivers on post routes down the seam. Wilder sat back and baited the quarterback. As soon as the pass went up, Wilder broke on the ball, jumped the route and made the interception.
"He's very smart out there," Green said. "I think it comes from being a point guard on the basketball team. As a point guard he's used to making calls and making split-second decisions. He's able to take charge that way on the football field."
Wilder certainly isn't afraid to be the secondary's point guard. In practice Wilder yaps defensive signals and calls out the plays. During a game, when he recognizes an offense, he starts directing his fellow defensive backs like Peyton Manning moving his receivers.
"I'm always talking," Wilder said. "But it's never any trash. It's all football. I let my pads and play speak for themselves."
"He doesn't need to talk [trash] -- he just makes plays," Green said. "I appreciate that more than anything."
Next year Wilder will have an even greater opportunity to be a playmaker. In addition to his defensive back responsibilities, Wilder will start at slot receiver, rotate in at running back and return kicks and punts.
With all that extra duty, Green wants Wilder to hit the weights so he doesn't wear down.
"All offseason I'm working on getting stronger so I can be more durable," Wilder said. "I'll do anything to help the team. Defense, offense, and special teams -- I give it 100 percent all the time. I work hard and I'm committed to getting better."
Wilder has the right attitude.
After all, only the dedicated succeed. Only the exceptional stand out. And only the extraordinary sign Division I national letters of intent.
"Howard can be a Division I player," Green said. "With everything he brings to the table, I would be highly disappointed if he doesn't have 15 Division I offers to choose from."
Fifteen would be nice. But Wilder would be happy with one.
A free education? A chance to play on Saturdays?
"It's something I've always dreamed of," Wilder said. "The stadium, the cameras, the intensity, the crowd "
Wilder trailed off mid-thought. He was visualizing the day - the moment when he steps out from the shadow of "little Derrick'" and becomes "Howard Wilder: star defensive back."