As the backup to seven-time Pro Bowl selection DeMarcus Ware the last two seasons, Kyle Wilber enjoyed a front-row seat to greatness, having the rare opportunity to learn his craft from a true superstar.
Wilber, the third-year outside linebacker-turned-defensive end-turned outside linebacker out of Wake Forest, soaked up as much as he could from both Ware and left end Anthony Spencer. The lessons appeared to rub off, as Wilber put forth a strong performance late in the 2013 campaign.
"This is a great opportunity to show what I can do, learning from the best," says Wilber, the Cowboys' fourth-round pick, 113th overall, in the 2012 draft. "D-Ware helped me a lot, him and Spencer. I just feel like they're two of the best defensive ends-slash-outside linebackers in the game, so for me to be underneath their wing, they taught me everything. I just need to suck it up and learn everything I can from them."
So far so good. Switching from a 3-4 defensive scheme to the 4-3 alignment last season was not as much of a challenge for Wilber as one might expect.
"I don't really think it was that big of an adjustment," says Wilber, after seeing limited action in 10 games as a rookie, recording three tackles on defense. "It's just allowing us to make more plays. I just need to keep getting better one day at a time."
Wilber, who suffered a thumb injury in the first preseason game of 2012 that required surgery and caused him miss to about six weeks, believes his ability to adapt to different types of defenses has made him a better all around, and ultimately more valuable, player.
"Versatility kind of helped me out," says Wilber. "At Wake Forest, we sort of limited ourselves to the kinds of plays that we did and then I came here. With [former defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan, it was a whole bunch of defenses mixed into one. It was a lot of blitzes and stuff like that, so it kind of helped out my versatility."
His former coach at Wake Forest, Jim Grobe, agrees that Wilber's ability to excel at multiple facets of the game is one of his best assets.
"He has good leverage and quickness to be a pass-rusher, but he's got enough foot-speed to be a dropper and play linebacker," says Grobe, now in his 13th season as the Demon Deacons' head coach. "I thought he just had a lot of flexibility with the different positions that he could possibly play.
"We did both with him. We had him rushing the passer and we had him playing linebacker and dropping into coverage. We're a 3-4 team, but we had him coming off the edge and actually playing some defensive end while he was here. We felt very comfortable with him if he had to play man-coverage, just because he could run so well."
Now listed at 6-4, 250, having added 10 pounds since his senior collegiate year, there is no question Wilber's effort last season caught the attention of the Dallas coaching staff, both on defense and on special teams.
"Kyle is doing a good job," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says. "He worked very hard to get better at it. We believe we see progress on a daily basis with him. He does have some versatility in that he's a good special teams player as well. He's in a good environment on the defense to learn from those guys."
As for his role on special teams, Wilber knows that will be the aspect of the game where he is likely to see the majority of playing time and have the biggest impact.
"Special teams is definitely a key part of it, I've got to play big on special teams," echoes Wilber. "I want to be on this team, so I've got to play special teams. The more you can do, the more you can do."
His knack for mastering various skills also extends to his life off the field. After excelling in three different sports at Apopka High School in Florida, including wrestling and weightlifting, and leading his football squad to an 8-2 record as a senior, Wilber took on the significant responsibility of two different majors at Wake Forest.
"I wanted to major in psychology, but I just went to sociology because I had some great professors that I liked a lot, so I majored in sociology," says Wilber. "I said, 'I might as well major in something else,' so I majored in communications."
Uh, OK. Wasn't carrying two majors a lot more coursework?
"Yeah, it was, but you've just got to work hard," says Wilber. His determination in the classroom spilled over to the gridiron, where he registered 70 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and even blocked one kick as a senior for a Demon Deacons squad that finished 6-7. [embedded_ad]
Grobe points to that "bring it on" type of attitude as just one of the things that could make Wilber a special player for the Cowboys.
"Wake Forest is not easy, this is a for-real academic school," Grobe notes. "In Kyle's case, I think he would have been the perfect student at Wake Forest if he didn't have football, and he'd be the perfect football guy if he didn't have the tough academics, but he was a guy that excelled in both. He was really good on the field and he was really good in the classroom. That's what's so hard."
Wilber's interest in sociology was part of his contingency plan if he didn't reach the NFL.
"I wanted to be like a social worker, helping out foster kids," reveals Wilber. "And communications, being able to talk to the kids, we were learning more about – it wasn't public speaking, it was more ethos, pathos and logos, and rhetoric and all that."
While his teammates may not have understood what he was talking about, everyone noticed Wilber's passion. Grobe never doubted that Wilber's best days were still to come.
"I always felt his potential was unlimited beyond college," Grobe says. "More than anything else, he's just one of those guys you just love having on your football team. He's a quiet guy, not typically a rah-rah guy. He's a quiet leader by example because he just works real hard. I really felt like he was a guy whose best football was in front of him. We hate to not have him here right now, but I suspect as time goes by, he's going to develop into a heck of a football player in the NFL."
That process is already well under way.