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Comfort zone

Patriost rookie defensive back Tavon Wilson excels at making adjustments

Tavon Wilson wasn’t happy about being switched from cornerback to safety while at Illinois, but it’s paying off for him now. Tavon Wilson wasn’t happy about being switched from cornerback to safety while at Illinois, but it’s paying off for him now. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)
By Amalie Benjamin and Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 5, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH — There was about a week left until the first game of the 2010 football season when the coaches at the University of Illinois told Tavon Wilson that he would no longer be playing cornerback. They needed him at strong safety, injuries having necessitated major changes.

Wilson chafed at the move. With little time to prepare, the player known for leading late-night film sessions had to figure out safety, a position he hadn’t played since he occasionally manned it in high school.

He made the transition, though, and survived, returning to cornerback for his final college season. But despite that preference, safety is where Wilson should get the bulk of his playing time as a rookie with the Patriots after being a surprise second-round draft choice.

“It took some sales,” said Vic Koenning, then Wilson’s defensive coordinator at Illinois and now associate head coach/defense at North Carolina. “As a matter of fact, Tavon told me this spring, ‘It looks like you were right, everybody [in the NFL] is talking to me about playing safety.’

“I had told him all along I thought that was a natural position for him.”

That’s all behind him. As Wilson said Thursday, “I’m happy with the position I play now. I just try to attack any position with a great attitude and that’s how you have great results.”

Wilson said he hasn’t thought about how his life — or NFL hopes — might be different had he not made the move to safety in 2010.

For now, he’s working on adjusting to a new life, being helped by his fellow defensive backs, studying religiously, trying to make his mark in training camp.

“Everything is new,” he said. “I’m getting more comfortable every day as far as learning everything, so I’ve just got to continue to attack my playbook. Every day I get more comfortable.”

Just like he did in moving from cornerback to safety.

And though safety is likely to be his primary position in the NFL — with Wilson appearing to be third on the Patriots’ depth chart — he is versatile. Wilson already has seen time all over the defensive backfield and at linebacker, plus on special teams. He joked that he’ll even play nose tackle, if it comes to that.

“He is a good, physical player,” Koenning said. “I’ll be surprised if his niche isn’t going to be coming in there in nickel situations and being the guy they put on the inside receiver. I’ve watched a lot of coach [Bill] Belichick’s stuff — he has guys playing different leverages and funneling and all that. [Tavon] can match up with tight ends. He’s really been a utility guy.”

Though it’s still early, Wilson has impressed the coaching staff with his on-field work and inquisitiveness, looking particularly good on Wednesday in pass coverage.

That might just back up the Patriots’ decision to take the off-the-radar player rounds ahead of where others expected. Wilson, in fact, wasn’t even invited to the combine, and was projected as low as a seventh-round choice.

The Patriots had other ideas.

“I think he’s been on a steady course since he got here,” Belichick said. “Tavon works hard. He’s very attentive, he asks good questions, he really pays attention, and he’s a hard-working kid, both on and off the field.”

It was at Illinois that coaches noticed Wilson was spending a lot of his time in film sessions, sometimes up to four hours. He even motivated himself after being left out of the combine by watching and studying what happened there.

“For a lot of guys it’s just sitting there watching colors moving around, where Tavon actually learned,” Koenning said. “I feel like if [players] don’t know it well enough to teach it, they don’t know. Tavon could coach all the defensive back positions and the nickel position and could tell the linebackers what to do.

“He was a student of it, and he wanted to know it.”

That was part of what made the move easier for Wilson. He already had studied the entire defense, and so he came in with knowledge of playing safety that another player might not have had.

“I’ve always been the type of guy to try to know everything about the whole defense, so I kind of had a sense of what was going on before it happened, as far as how to play that position,” Wilson said. “So I just tried to go in the film room, get in there as much as possible.”

It’s clear that hasn’t changed in the NFL, as he makes a transition that’s even more difficult than the one to safety in 2010.

“Tough position to play and a tough position to transition into because of all of the different things in the passing game and formations and matchups, all those type of things that veteran safeties would recognize,” Belichick said. “I think he’s coming along.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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