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‘If anything gets messed up, it’s my fault’: ASU’s Wilson takes job seriously

Arizona State's Jay Jay Wilson (9) celebrates after scoring on an interception with teammate Chase Lucas, left, as Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley, left, looks on in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State senior linebacker Jay Jay Wilson is likely known more for his three touchdown catches as a tight end in 2016 or his interception return for a touchdown against Utah last season.

What people may not know is his key role on the punt unit.

He’s the first line of defense for the Sun Devils against opposing kick blockers. Wilson serves as redshirt junior punter Michael Sleep-Dalton’s personal protector, meaning he surveys the return unit and calls out protections across the line.

“I trust all those boys with my life,” Sleep-Dalton said. “We practice a lot on it, we all trust one another. … I have faith in them and they have faith in me and it’s all going to just gel together.”

Wilson spearheads that group, adjusting protections to best serve Sleep-Dalton and the coverage team.

“It’s obviously not as much pressure as Manny (Wilkins), but it’s kind of like the quarterback of the punt team,” Wilson said. “I just take all the responsibility that I need to. If anything gets messed up, it’s my fault because, at the end of the day, I’ve got to set up the protection, I have to let guys know what’s coming.”

The biggest mess up of the year came against Texas Tech when the Red Raiders ran through the middle of the line and blocked a Sleep-Dalton punt, leading to a score that put them up 35-17 at halftime.

When one reporter pointed to that play as the fault of Wilson, however, special teams coach Shawn Slocum rebuffed the notion.

“I was trying to generate field position and I got us in a punt formation where we’re all spread out,” Slocum said. “We could have adjusted and maybe protected the thing, but that’s my fault for not having the players exactly ready to go. That’s not on them.”

This season will be Wilson’s fourth serving in front of ASU’s punter, but it’s not the place he envisioned himself in when he stepped on campus as a freshman.

Coming in as a tight end, Wilson hardly saw the field offensively in his first year in Tempe, so he sought out a way to make an impact for the Sun Devils.

One way to do that was contributing on special teams.

“I feel like it’s kind of underappreciated in the game of football,” Wilson said. “But a lot of players are made on special teams.”

That’s when Slocum said he first took notice of Wilson’s traits, deciding to put him at the personal protector spot.

“He’s a physically talented guy that’s played on offense,” Slocum said. “He’s played, basically, a running back position or a tight end position, so he can block. He understands it. He’s taken ownership of it.”

In addition to giving him a chance to get on the field, Wilson credits Slocum with changing the way he sees the game.

“He took my football IQ to a whole new level,” Wilson said. “As far as coming from the NFL and putting that emphasis and letting us know that there’s hidden yardage in football and a lot of it is on special teams.”

Wilson saw an increase of offensive snaps his sophomore season before moving to linebacker early on in his junior year, where he thrived, collecting 46 tackles and two sacks in 10 games.

He projects to be a starter on this year’s defense, but will still be in that protector role, where Slocum thinks he has a future.

“He’s a young man, that if he has a good season, he’ll have an opportunity to play in the National Football League,” Slocum said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about that.”

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