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Gators WR Eugene Wilson III learned football’s fine points from Super Bowl-winning father

GAINESVILLE — Even before his son stepped onto the football field, Eugene Willson II saw he had what it would take to be great.

At 5 years old, Eugene Wilson III refused to lose and lived to compete.

During a footrace with an older girl from the neighborhood, the concept of “ladies first” didn’t register with the boy known as “Tre.”

“They’re racing and they were pretty close, tight, all the way down to the finish line, and he saw his opportunity to make sure he wins and he dove across the finish line,” the elder Wilson recalled with a chuckle. “This is at 5 years old, and he’s got this competitive nature about him. I’m just like, man, this little dude — he’s going to make me proud.”

The best is yet to come.

Tre Wilson enters his second season at Florida poised to lead the Gators’ attack, become an SEC star and eventually follow his father’s path to the NFL, where he played eight seasons and in three Super Bowls.

“My whole life I’ve been seeking to follow in his footsteps,” he said.

Tre also left dad in the dust and grasping for air as he evolved into a top two-way talent at Tampa’s Gaither High and the top offensive signee in UF’s 2023 class.

Working together at the local park on one-on-one releases from the line of scrimmage, Eugene fell victim to one of his son’s ankle-breaking moves.

“We have a video of that, but we’re going to keep it behind the scenes,” Tre said.

Dad recalls a bit differently the day his son finally got the best of him.

“He actually shook me and I went to plant and I blame it on I didn’t have cleats,” the elder Wilson told the Orlando Sentinel. “I had on gym shoes, and he had cleats. So I told him that was his reason he got me.”

SEC defenders surely were looking for excuses themselves as Wilson burst onto the scene as a first-year freshman phenom.

Wilson was a bright spot during a 5-7 season and will be a centerpiece of Billy Napier’s offense in 2024.

“He’s gonna be amazing this year,” Ricky Pearsall, a potential top 50 NFL draft pick, said March 21 during UF’s Pro Day.

Wilson was something to behold at times last season. But he’s stronger, faster and sharper entering the Gators first spring scrimmage Saturday in the Swamp.

The 5-foot-10 sophomore is 181 pounds, up from 170, and has the playbook down pat after choosing not to enroll early — an anomaly these days in college football.

Wilson, though, barely missed a beat and earned his first start Week 2 against McNeese. He finished the season with a team-high 6 touchdown catches and was second to Pearsall with 61 receptions and 538 receiving yards Add 55 yards on six carries and Wilson averaged 8.97 yards per touch.

“I appreciated the opportunities and what I was able to make out of them,” he said.

Wilson also had an invaluable resource and unique advantage: a father who truly knew the ins and outs of the sport.

Eugene Wilson II was a second-round draft pick as second-team All-America safety at Illinois and became a two-time Super Bowl winner with the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots.

“I’m not just Joe Schmo off the street,” he said.

His son was a captive audience, knowing he had no ordinary dad.

The first fatherly advice was straightforward.

“Instilling hard work and doing extra pays off,” he said. “With him having that at such an early age it came easier in high school and college. Now, he doesn’t have to have me telling them, ‘You need to go run you need to go lift or you need to go work on this skill or that skill.’

“He knows what he has to do.”

At first, Tre didn’t know quite what to make of Dad’s approach.

By the time he was 7, he was playing Pop Warner with his Pops as an assistant coach and full-time mentor. At home, the Wilsons worked on the game’s fine points.

“My first couple years of youth league football he had me doing backpedals in the front yard,” Tre recalled. “I had no idea what it meant.”

Wilson had the skills to excel at safety, but also a knack to make defenders miss when the opportunities arose.

“In practice, he would score touchdowns and he’d be running all over the place. They couldn’t couldn’t tackle him,” Eugene said. “But he just happened to be on the team where the coach’s sons were running backs.”

Eugene Wilson III eventually became too difficult to contain with the ball in his hands. As a high school junior, he became a two-way force. He scored 18 touchdowns and recorded 9 interceptions in 18 games during his final two seasons at Gaither.

Having seen the game from both sides, he wouldn’t want to face himself.

“Any DB, they don’t like the type of dudes like me,” he said.

Eugene II hasn’t seen too many like his son — and he saw plenty of dudes in the NFL.

Yet Tre Wilson’s acceleration, instincts and football IQ are special, best evidenced after the catch.

The elder Wilson sees similarities with Gators legend Percy Harvin and San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel.

“He’s more of a running back playing receiver,” Eugene said of his son. “Once he gets the ball, one man can’t bring him down. Tre is fearless.”

Injuries undercut Harvin’s promising career while Samuel’s durability is an issue.

Tre Wilson missed several games as a high school senior because of a broken collarbone. During the Gators’ Week 3 win against Tennessee, he left early in the second quarter after suffering a bruise to the area, costing him two games.

But Eugene Wilson II doesn’t expect anything to stop his son this season.

“I see a player that the only one that could stop him is himself,” he said. “If you can get Tre ball, then the rest is just gonna happen.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com