BLACKSBURG ——Until he actually stood in Michael Vick Hall outside Virginia Tech's football meeting rooms, David Wilson was convinced he was going to be the next Bo Jackson.
He can't put his finger on what changed, but Wilson's feelings about Tech and his future at the school became clear in that hallway in the summer of 2008. Now, as he prepares to lead No. 9 Tech into next Saturday's annual rivalry game at Virginia, it's hard for him to imagine a time when he ever thought about spending his college days elsewhere.
Though Wilson grew up only about two hours from Blacksburg in Danville, where he became one of the nation's top five running backs coming out of high school according to most recruiting analysts, Auburn captured his heart first.
On a recruiting trip he took to Auburn days before taking the life-changing trip to Blacksburg, he got to hear stories of Jackson's Heisman Trophy year in 1985. Wilson also learned more about former Auburn running backs Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown — two guys Wilson loved to watch.
One question about Jackson may have gotten Wilson to at least start thinking about where he fit in.
"When I was down there, I asked somebody where he was from," said Wilson, who graduated from George Washington High in Danville with a grade point average near 3.7. "Somebody told me, 'Oh, he's from Alabama.' I thought, 'Bo Jackson is from Alabama. Reggie Bush is from California. Michael Vick is from Virginia.' All these players that I liked are from the states where they went to school."
If geography truly had something to do with Wilson's final college decision, Tech (10-1 overall, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) has benefited from the presence of a homegrown player that has gone on to produce numbers akin to those posted by Jackson and Bush in their best seasons.
As a junior this season, Wilson has gained 1,442 yards on 231 carries, an average of 6.2 yards per carry. He had a streak of seven consecutive 100-plus yard rushing games. He needs just 213 yards to surpass Ryan Williams for Tech's single-season rushing yardage record (1,655 yards in '09).
Wilson even has started to generate a little Heisman Trophy buzz of his own, but probably not enough to cause much of a real ripple in the voting. Still, Tech coach Frank Beamer hopes it might be enough to convince Wilson to hang around Blacksburg for another season, as opposed to bolting for the NFL.
"I think once you get in the mix, your name is out there next year, too," Beamer said. "Most of the people this year that are being mentioned are seniors. They're going to be gone, so I think there are some great opportunities for him.
"To me, it'd be a factor. I mean, how many people have a legitimate shot to win the Heisman? Hopefully he gets it done this year. This season isn't over."
In his first two seasons at Tech, Wilson played behind Williams and Darren Evans. Wilson remains close with Williams, who is rehabilitating a knee injury that derailed what would've been his rookie season with the Arizona Cardinals before it got started.
Wilson also has developed a friendship with former Tech running back Kevin Jones, who still is second on the Hokies' career rushing yardage list after running for 3,475 yards from '01 to '03. After spending six seasons in the NFL, Jones is back in Blacksburg and aiming to earn a degree industrial design.
The first thing Wilson asked for from Jones was a highlight tape, which Jones gladly handed over. In return, Jones offered some advice.
"He's an incredible runner, but I told him I wanted to see him learn to use that stiff arm," Jones said. "I'm telling you, if he just sticks that arm out there and starts pushing some of those defenders away, he'll be unstoppable. He's got a real future, man. He could be the best Tech has ever seen."
While Wilson listened to what Jones had to say, even trying to implement a few half-hearted attempts at stiff arms against Wake Forest, Wilson has developed his own running style.
It's a mix of power between the tackles, one-cut inside pounding, pure outside speed and crazy, field-reversing, coach-maddening running. The latter he most famously displayed Oct. 1 in Tech's 23-3 loss to Clemson, where he changed directions three times, running back-and-forth for a total of 125 yards to pick up an actual 19-yard gain on the field.
Shane Beamer, who is in his first season as Tech's running backs coach, saw plenty of Wilson's unique running on film from his freshman and sophomore seasons. It wasn't always picture perfect.