Fifth-year senior C.J. Wilson was expected to be one of four veteran starters in the secondary this season. However, the cornerback was not on the field during the Wolfpack's season-opener against Tennessee and the NCAA told the University the following day that they would suspend him for the first four games of the campaign because he did not pass six credit hours last spring, despite earning his degree in December.
Wilson, who kept himself from a year-long suspension by posting a 3.4 grade-point average during summer school, was thankful for the ruling because there were several times when he thought he would never be able to play college football again.
"I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't worried, but I just had to have faith," he said. "I kept thinking, 'if I keep doing the right things, keep doing what I'm supposed to and keeping believing in what I believe in, I'll be fine.' The Lord blessed me with the opportunity to play again.
"I'm more than thankful, I'm thankful to this day. It was just a wake-up call that tomorrow isn't promised. You never know when you're going to be able to play again. Just the opportunity to come back and play again was a blessing. I take every practice and every drill seriously because I don't want to take it for granted."
The native of Lincolnton, N.C., noted that he was helped through the difficult time by a strong support system made up of his teammates and family. He repaid his teammates by working as hard as he could during his time on the defensive scout team at the beginning of the season and, although he wanted to stay out of the public eye during games to avoid becoming a distraction, he gave his fellow players as much support as he could before games.
"It was rough going through training camp and seeing everybody playing, knowing that I couldn't be out there playing with my brothers," he remembered. "It was hard, I'd get emotional, especially in the first couple of games. Against Tennessee, I was down and out of it, but my real close friends - Earl Wolff, Tobais [Palmer], Sterling [Lucas], Dontae [Johnson] - they were all right beside me. They told me, 'it's all right, man, we're going to need you when you get back. Stay focused.'
"My teammates had my back. It was overwhelming love from the team that helped me through. My teammates and my family helped me overcome a lot. By the third game, I was just ready to get out there, I couldn't wait."
Wilson made his season debut in the fifth game of the year against Miami. He logged 35 plays from scrimmage, and finished with one tackle, but noted the action helped him knock off the rust of not playing since last year's Belk Bowl. The next two games, he played exclusively on special teams, but he played a huge role against rival North Carolina last Saturday.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Juston Burris, who had filled in for the senior, was briefly injured early in the game and the veteran relieved his younger teammate. Wilson was on the field for 59 plays from scrimmage, and in addition to three tackles, he recorded an interception in the end zone, a strip of a Carolina receiver at the 10-yard line and another crucial pass break-up that he nearly picked off and returned for a touchdown, which would've been the fourth of his career. Nevertheless, the spark that he provided off the bench helped NC State fight back from a 25-7 deficit in the first quarter.
Defensive coordinator Mike Archer was not surprised by Wilson's superb performance.
"He has played a lot of football," the coach said. "Juston has done the job, but he got dinged down there. The doctors told us that he was OK, but we were going to go with C.J. until he proved that he wasn't going to do it. He had a good game and that was something that helped get us back in the game.
"Obviously the two plays - the interception and the seam route that he takes away from the guy - were big, both of those were in the red zone. He had another opportunity on the out over on their sidelines, he got his hands on the ball. If he catches that, it might have been an even bigger play. It was good to see that he got in there. Ever since he's been here, he's always been around the football and made impact plays. Those were two very important plays."
Wilson said it was just part of his effort to repay his teammates for everything they have done for him while he went through trying times earlier in the year. Although he admits that last week was probably his best individual game in the Red and White, he was not pleased because the Pack did not come out on top and he'll remember the play that he just missed more than any play that he did make.
"I should've caught that pick, that would've sealed the game and ended it," he said. "But, things happen for a reason, so hopefully I can bounce back from that this week and make another play.
"The only time I'm satisfied is when we win. I'm only satisfied if the clock says, '0:00' and we're up. It was good to make plays and help my team, but it would have been better if we won. I would have traded all of that for the win, so it's rough. It hurts. We've got to bounce back and do the right things. It starts in practice. We'll take it step-by-step and we'll bounce back."
Linebacker and team captain Sterling Lucas said that Wilson's ability to weather the storm that he has been through this year and step up against North Carolina when his team needed him the most shows a lot about him - as a football player and as a person.
"That just shows you his character," Lucas said. "He went through being ineligible and then going through where he didn't play as much as he would like to. He always stayed positive, came out here in practice and practiced at a high level. It is a testament to his character."
The impressive performance has allowed Wilson to re-claim his spot in the first-string defense going forward. When the Pack goes to their nickel and dime packages with more than four defensive backs, Wilson will play on the edge, while junior Dontae Johnson plays in the slot.
"I think when C.J. came back and we put him in against Miami, he didn't really have a lot of success at that point," head coach Tom O'Brien said. "We probably put him in too soon, so he's had to wait his turn. When Burris was a little dinged up Saturday, he got in there and he showed up.
"He gave [defensive backs] Coach [Mike] Reed and the defensive coaches a lot of confidence that he's back to where he can help us play."