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A position of strength

Wilson grew into safety role

FOXBOROUGH -- Who knows? Maybe a year from now when Ty Law is playing cornerback for the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, or Dallas Cowboys, Eugene Wilson will slip into the starting spot the Patriots had in mind for him all along. But for now, Wilson is content to be part of a defense that has six former No. 1 draft picks, playing a position he never imagined he'd be playing in his second season in the NFL.

The Patriots free safety never really fit the mold of a guy whose job was to hit people hard and be the last line of defense. He had extremely good cover skills at Illinois, which is why the Patriots drafted him without hesitation in the second round in 2003.

When Lawyer Milloy was still in these parts, Wilson was going to be a nickel back, a likely winner in the rookie training camp battle with Asante Samuel last year. Then Bill Belichick shocked the team by releasing Milloy.

Veteran Antwan Harris got the first look at free safety in the opener, the 31-0 loss to the Bills, and did nothing to show he would be an adequate replacement. Then, in one of his more underrated strokes of genius, Belichick and defensive backs coach Eric Mangini gave Wilson a quick lesson in Safety 101, and the next week against the Philadelphia Eagles, Wilson was out there playing safety at age 23, all 192 pounds of him.

Wilson had to adapt from using his cover skills to being a little more physical. While he hasn't become a Milloy, a Rodney Harrison, or a John Lynch, Wilson still puts a pretty good licking on opponents. He said yesterday, two days after picking off two Josh McCown passes and having a third interception called back because of a penalty, that he's put on 5 pounds of muscle to help meet the demands of his job.

Now he wonders, will he be a safety for the rest of his career? The number on his check stub in the future would be larger if he played Law's position, but Wilson at least has guaranteed himself a starting job in the NFL for the foreseeable future.

Each of his two picks against the Cardinals led to scores. In the first quarter, on third and 11 from his 14, McCown tried to connect with rookie receiver Larry Fitzgerald down the middle, in a sea of Patriots jerseys. Wilson came up with the ball at the 44 and returned it 14 yards. A five-play drive by the Patriots was capped off by Daniel Graham's 19-yard touchdown reception.

Wilson's fourth-quarter interception foiled the Cardinals' attempt to get back into the game after the Patriots had taken a 20-12 lead on Adam Vinatieri's 28-yard field goal. The Cardinals had just gotten a first down on Roman Phifer's illegal contact penalty, moving the ball to the Cardinal 38, when Wilson picked off McCown, again trying to force it in to Fitzgerald. Eight plays later, Vinatieri added the final points in the 23-12 triumph with a 24-yarder.

"I thought I had a pretty solid game," said the soft-spoken Wilson. "I was able to make a couple of plays with the interceptions, but I thought overall our defense played a very solid game. I'm pretty sure there were mistakes made that will get pointed out and that we'll try to correct the next time."

Wilson says he feels comfortable where he is. It may have helped that by his senior year in college, the Illinois defense had changed from strictly man-to-man to a zone, which is not much different from what the Patriots play now.

Couple that with his added weight, which he says "makes me stronger" for the position, and the Patriots may have a star in the making.

Harrison no doubt has had an influence on the young safety, but Wilson believes you're either inclined to hit hard or you aren't.

"I've seen Rodney hit guys pretty hard, but I wouldn't say Rodney and I have had a hitting session where he taught me how to hit," Wilson said. "It's just something I naturally have, and I've had the opportunity to let it go."

Since starting against the Eagles in Game 2 last season, Wilson has gone 19-1 as a Patriot. Imagine being almost perfect, going almost a calendar year without a loss. When asked about it, Wilson simply trots out the party line that the streak isn't on anyone's mind.

"It's still kind of unreal, but at the same time it is real because we've got guys who play so hard to be so good and it's just paying off for us right now," he said. "But we really don't even talk about it. I hear things from my family members and friends, but other than that we just play ball and have fun."

Asked whether he is a safety now, Wilson again gives the kind of the answer the Patriots like to hear: "I'm a football player. Whatever they want me to play. I'm just out there."

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