Caleb Wilson brings positivity, versatility to UCLA football

LOS ANGELES — Everywhere Caleb Wilson goes on the field, he’s covered. The tight end gets shadowed by two defenders. He gets chipped at the line of scrimmage. He’s the target of more attention now than he’s ever had.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If you’re not getting focused on, that means you haven’t earned it and you’re not making enough plays,” Wilson said. “I had to put that in perspective. It is respect to be focused on in the offense.”

Wilson has long had the respect of his UCLA teammates and now the former USC walk-on is earning it from his opponents. Since Wilson helped the Bruins mount the biggest comeback in school history with 15 catches for 207 yards against Texas A&M, teams won’t dare let the lanky Dallas native run free now. Wilson was held to six combined catches in the past two games entering UCLA’s conference opener at Stanford on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

But as he’s always done, the sophomore is ready to adjust.

“I’m just focusing on doing my job,” Wilson said. “If I can take two defenders and allow one of our teammates to get a one-on-one, I’m more than willing to do that.”

Wilson was always one to put his team first, like when he switched from quarterback to tight end as a senior at Serra High of Gardena. He caught 18 passes for 310 yards and seven touchdowns in half a season, but the position change stymied Wilson’s college recruitment. Schools were hesitant to offer the rail-thin, 6-foot-4, 216-pounder who was too big to play receiver and too small to play tight end. He originally committed to Old Dominion as a quarterback before accepting a walk-on spot at USC, where his father Chris was the defensive line coach.

After Clay Helton took over at USC prior to the 2016 season, Wilson’s father went to Missouri before landing with the Philadelphia Eagles while USC tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo went to UCLA to coach quarterbacks. He didn’t forget about the athletic walk-on and UCLA coaches called Serra head coach Scott Altenberg for a scouting report on Wilson before offering him a scholarship.

“This kid’s going to be a star at tight end,” Altenberg told the Bruins.

Wilson is second in the nation in tight end receiving yards (280) and third in the nation in tight end receptions (21). He caught his first collegiate touchdown two weeks ago against Hawaii. Now at 235 pounds, he can also contribute on running plays as a blocker this year.

Wilson’s emergence helped the Bruins become the second-best passing team in the nation with 442.3 passing yards. UCLA has weapons all over the field and if Wilson draws a double team that means Darren Andrews, the nation’s leader in receiving touchdowns (six), is lurking against single coverage. The game always tends to open up for Wilson, whose six receptions in the past two games have all come in the fourth quarter.

“It’s always great when you can make them defend the entire field,” UCLA head coach Jim Mora said. “That’s one of the things you try to do and that’s one of the things a really good tight end gives you.”

Wilson gives the Bruins a receiving threat on the field and a personable leader off it. After a nomadic childhood spent following his father’s coaching career, Wilson learned to “be versatile” in all social situations. Teammates are drawn to his joyful personality. When he flashes his easy smile that reveals a single dimple on his left cheek, others can’t help but follow.

“If you’re having a bad day, he can make you smile just like that,” Andrews said. “That’s a great person to have on your team.”

This is the first time Wilson has played on the same team for consecutive years since middle school. He went to three high schools in three years, going from Starkville, Miss., to Athens, Ga., to Gardena, then started college at USC before settling in Westwood. It’s a welcome dose of consistency, Wilson said, as teammates now know to expect his endless positivity.

At a recent practice, quarterback Josh Rosen asked Wilson to bring energy to liven up the team. The same way he dutifully accepts double teams, Wilson cracked his dimpled smile and went to work.

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